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The devastating Exotica is a master class in withholding

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s 1994 Week at the A.V. Club, so we’re recommending our favorite movies of that year.


Exotica (1994)

“You have to ask yourself: What brought the person to this place?” says a minor character at the beginning of Exotica. It’s a question that underlies all of Atom Egoyan’s best work, but it has an additional, more literal meaning here, as much of the film takes place at a strip club, frequented by a man who’s not there for the usual reasons. Played with alarming sincerity and depth of feeling by Bruce Greenwood, Francis is a tax auditor by day, but he’s first seen at night, at his usual table in the creepily lush and sterile club Exotica, where a beautiful young woman (Mia Kirshner), dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, performs a private and curiously asexual dance. She bares her breasts for him and presses her cheek to his, moving against him sinuously; he stares at her with an anguished expression and asks, repeatedly and hoarsely, “How could anybody want to hurt you?” Both of them are watched intently by Exotica’s aggressively condescending master of ceremonies, Eric (Elias Koteas), who has both a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings from his perch above the dance floor and a close-up view from behind the club’s numerous one-way mirrors. Exotica‘s other principal, a painfully shy pet-shop owner named Thomas (Don McKellar), is being audited by Francis, which is a bit of problem since he’s involved in smuggling exotic animals into the country. However, he seems more interested in picking up men at the opera using a free-ticket ploy.

Because Egoyan is a master at strategically withholding information, it takes a long time just to work out exactly what’s going on, and even longer for the story’s multiple strands to converge. When they finally do, however, Exotica—much like Egoyan’s subsequent film, The Sweet Hereafter—proves to be a devastatingly cathartic exploration of tragedy’s aftermath and the ways that people attempt to cope with inexpressible grief. This was the last movie that Egoyan made in his original, oddly stilted, psychologically warped mode before taking his career in a slightly more mainstream direction, and its portrait of denial codified by demented ritual gets at painful truths in a way that strict realism can’t easily manage. Francis has gone to enormous lengths to create an intricate fantasy world for himself, yet he’s not exactly delusional. It’s far more complex than that, and Exotica derives its unique power in large part from Christina’s all-but-unacknowledged role in their symbiotic relationship, the entirety of which is implied by her slow, reluctant walk up to the path to her house in a closing flashback. Only cinema can create an effect like this—any attempt to put the shot’s troubling implication into words would render it instantly banal. Shot in a slightly hyperreal fashion by D.P. Paul Sarossy and accompanied by Mychael Danna’s brilliant score (with its discomfiting mixture of familiar and foreign instrumentation and rhythms), it rattles the nervous system like few other endings in the medium’s history.

Availability: Exotica is available only on DVD—and oddly, Netflix doesn’t carry it. But used copies can be found very cheaply.

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