Conversations about film
July 24, 2021
Directed by Atom Egoyan, 1994
Jim Wilson: Hey, Marc, welcome back to Collokino. Having a good summer?
Marc Dottavio: Hi Jim, it’s nice to be back. It’s certainly a much different summer than it was this time last year. I’m still getting used to going mask-less, visiting restaurants, attending large gatherings, etc. (fully vaccinated, of course), though there’s still one place I haven’t been back to: a movie theater. That’s mostly because the pickings have been pretty slim, and if I ever get desperate enough to watch Cruella or The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, I’d much rather do it from my couch. Even before lockdown, I never made it out to the theater as often as I should have; I’m kind of a homebody and keep obsessively perfecting my home theater set-up. But I definitely always looked forward to catching the first run of titles I was excited about.
The last film I saw with an audience was Portrait of a Lady on Fire well over a year ago, the day before the theater closed due to covid. That was a good way to go out, so now that my closest indie theater is back up and running, I’m just waiting for the right first trip back. (I have my eye on Pig and many of the exciting films currently premiering at Cannes.) How about you? Are you much of a theater-goer, and have you ventured back out yet?
Jim: I have. A few weeks ago I saw A Quiet Place Part II in a mostly empty theater. I like going to morning showings, or matinees, since I don’t like crowds. I was disappointed in the film. Millicent Simmonds is the clear standout. And it’s always cool to see Cillian Murphy, but, like everything else in the film, except Simmonds, his part is half-formed, at best. I really enjoyed the original, because it was clever and original, but like any good thing that takes root in popular cinema, it’s instantly franchized. Shoulda known better. There’s a third part in the planning already, of course, which I’ll be eager to avoid.
I, too, can’t wait to see a lot of the Cannes films. They’re much more interesting to me than most of what’s showing now. The French Dispatch, Annette, Benedetta, and France, not to mention the Palme d’Or winning Titane, I really look forward to seeing.
Tell me about your home theater set-up. What do you have?
Marc: There’s currently a Samsung 85” taking up most of my living room wall, with a surround sound system that’s pretty old (and with some speakers swapped out) but still quite good. My partner and I decided it was worth the investment since there’s hardly anything we use more. We’ve been slowly upgrading over the years, and I love revisiting older movies I wouldn’t otherwise get to see on such a big screen. Lately it’s been especially fun soaking in epic Cinemascope productions like A Star Is Born and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. But even grainy silent films in the Academy ratio have been a whole new experience.
I’ve always gotten excited over the technical aspects of film presentation. I remember hunting down letterboxed VHS editions and obsessing over aspect ratios, anamorphic vs non-anamorphic, SD vs HD, and different prints and restorations. Halloween was one film that had several editions going around where the color scheme was completely different, either a plain orange or bathed in moody blues. My obsessive-compulsive tendencies couldn’t take it. (I’m the same way about music remasters.)
So now it’s like the great equalizer: I get to see little-known 60’s cult films the same way I would the new streaming Marvel movie. Not that I’m watching many of the latter these days. With services like The Criterion Channel, I just hope I live long enough to see a fraction of what’s out there waiting.
Jim: Being a geek. Last vestiges, right? I’d love to have an 85”. Music remasters. What do you like listening to?
Marc: I have favorites across most eras and genres, but since I mentioned remasters… lately there’s been some pretty exciting reissues of albums by Prince, The Replacements, R.E.M, The Beatles, and (soon) The Beach Boys. My favorite new “old” discovery is probably Gram Parsons, whose small discography has been a joy to finally tackle. That’s all pretty classic rock-oriented, the nature of reissues I suppose. As far as new releases, I’m pretty taken with the new Tyler, the Creator album.
But my new music intake has definitely slowed down over the last year or two as I do deep dives into the countless artists I’d always meant to explore. I’m the same way with film– I have a pretty massive vinyl collection, and if other physical media wasn’t essentially dead, I’d probably have the same for Blu-rays. Thankfully for my wallet, that’s one thing I don’t need to hoard.
Jim: With what little I know about you, that makes sense. You seem to have a strong affinity for classics.
That said, let’s move on to the film you brought to talk about, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, which may or may not be considered a classic. I don’t know, you tell me. It concerns a number of interconnected characters and an exotic strip club. What connects all the characters is gradually revealed as the film unspools, centered on the tragic murder of a young girl, whose grieving father Francis (Bruce Greenwood) frequents the strip club, and one dancer in particular, as a way of coping with his loss.
Are you a big Egoyan fan? What’s your history with the film?
Marc: Before Exotica, my only exposure to Egoyan was The Sweet Hereafter, another powerful (if less oblique) exploration of grief and interconnectedness. From my understanding, his reputation is as something of a lost cause. He was a singular filmmaker from the early nineties whose films after Hereafter started being poorly received, until they far outnumbered his more acclaimed work. For that reason, I’ve stayed away from most of his other movies.
I’ve since caught up with only two more, from opposite ends of his career. Speaking Parts from 1989 is very much in line with his early style: deliberately stilted performances; a hypnotic, almost hermetically-sealed tone; and a slow drip of information that doesn’t completely come together until the final moments. I’ve called it a dry run for Exotica, though it’s more overtly strange and less deeply emotional. The other is 2015’s Remember. That one’s practically a sleazy thriller, with Christopher Plummer as a dementia-addled Holocaust survivor who leaves his nursing home in search of the Nazi who killed his family. I had a blast with it, but I’d never guess it was the work of the same guy responsible for that remarkable three-film run.
It took me a few viewings over the years to come to consider Exotica a masterpiece. It’s the kind of film that invites multiple looks, though it’s not difficult to piece together plot-wise. It’s more about getting on its particular wavelength and making thematic connections between the different threads. Something just keeps drawing me back, and I’m fascinated by the gaps that Egoyan seems to intentionally still leave. Is it a classic? It is in certain circles. If it didn’t have the lasting influence of other independent touchstones by Tarantino, Linklater, Wes Anderson, et al., I suspect it will continue growing in stature among those who discover it.
Jim: The only others of Egoyan’s I’ve seen are The Sweet Hereafter and Adoration, neither of which I was very fond of. I remember really disliking Adoration, while The Sweet Hereafter I recognized as a good film, though it struck me at the time as overly contrived. I imagine I’d like it better on a second watch, since I think Exotica is excellent enough that it can overcome some of Egoyan’s oddities and serve as an insight to his particular cinematic voice. I would describe Egoyan’s style as invented, or affected. There’s a layer, or maybe multiple layers, of artifice that he doesn’t try to disguise. His films wear their creative processes on their sleeves, so to speak, but Exotica is a powerful enough story to exceed that.
For me, the most memorable part of Exotica is the club itself, which was, as I understand it, built inside an unused room of a building in Toronto. It’s damn impressive the detail that went into it. It’s so idiosyncratic, so gaudy, so dense, it’s palpable. Far from the typical design of strip clubs often seen in films, it works like a heavily embellished dreamscape, like a representation of the interior spaces of the characters’ minds, where we locate their desires, their fears, their pain. This is emphasized by the circular hallway and its one-way mirrored windows. The windows are shaped like a woman’s naked torso, armless, legless, headless; there’s something both forensic and bluntly illustrative about the eroticism they invoke. They literally look in on what’s happening in the club, each window like a peepshow into the souls of the club’s patrons. And then there’s that bizarre DJ booth overhead, where Eric introduces the dancers and evokes the patrons’ repressed libidos. It’s phony desire for sale. For just five dollars, you too can pretend that you’re special because this beautiful woman gave you a private dance.
There are a thousand things about the physical space of the club itself that could be discussed at length, before ever getting to the characters, but that’s a bit clinical. Introduce some of the characters, maybe the ones who left the deepest impression on you when you first saw the film, and the ones that grew on you after repeated viewings.
Marc: I couldn’t agree more about Exotica as a physical space. It’s not like any strip club in the movies, because it’s about much more than sexual desire: it’s a place for letting your “imagination run wild,” where everyone’s roles are assigned and understood, even if it all means something different to each person. As long as there’s no touching, that is. But we’ll get to that part later.
The club also brings together almost all the major characters, even if they only have dim ideas of how they factor into each other’s lives. Chief among them is Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who you already mentioned. But we hear even more from Eric (Elias Koteas, who a certain generation may recognize from the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), who endlessly monologues from that looming DJ booth. He’s the closest the film has to an antagonist, until you realize his suspicion of Francis is at least partly based in sympathy and understanding. It’s his ominous, insinuating voice that I most associate with the film.
Then there’s Thomas (Don McKellar), who runs an exotic pet shop and picks up men by pretending to have an extra ballet ticket. I see his subplots as a lighter, more comic reflection of the main story’s themes. (Shades of the Woody Allen scenes in Crimes and Misdemeanors.) He starts out as mysterious as Francis, leaving us to wonder exactly where his scheme is headed, as well as what’s up with those weird eggs. The answers, like most everything else, aren’t nearly as sinister as they first seem. But that’s how the movie operates. We first see him in the airport, unaware he’s being studied with suspicion, just like the patrons on the other side of Exotica’s disguised mirrors. Significantly, the mirrors only see one way.
But for me, the heart of Exotica is Christina (Mia Kirschner). On first viewing, she seems to be more of a player in everyone else’s fantasy worlds than a character with her own arc. Then comes that final scene, which suggests depths of pain that— unlike Francis’— remain hidden and unacknowledged. Each time I revisit the film, I see things more and more through her eyes. Having a glimpse of where she comes from suggests their arrangement isn’t as one-way as it seems, and that exchanging money can be just another part of the ritual. Their relationship is reciprocal, and exactly what “things” Francis does, or did, for her is part of what keeps me coming back. We’re told as much at the outset: “You have to ask yourself what brought the person to this point.”
Jim: I think I’m still processing the ending, with young Christina walking from Francis’s car to her house, what it entirely means. He’s a good listener? He listens kindly as she describes her problems with her family to him? He gives her good advice about how to talk with Mommy? I imagine it’s a bit more, or stranger, than that, but the film never goes there. There’s a thick vein of perversion that runs through the film, which I don’t mean moralistically, but in terms of behavior that would not be considered commonly acceptable. I mean, this guy’s babysitter is, a few years on, giving him lap-dances. We see how easy it is for things to get distorted by Francis. By the time he’s replaced Christina with Sarah Polley’s Tracey, Francis has gone completely around the bend. We’re watching a man at the end of his rope.
You’re right. We’re all watching these two men, Francis and Eric, fall apart in front of Christina, though Christina remains obscure, if not unaffected. She’s strangely inviolate, which makes no sense. I think there’s something between them all that’s never mentioned. I read that Egoyan said the camera work was meant to suggest the perspective of a missing character, namely Francis’s daughter. I have no idea what that means, but I can’t help wondering if it speaks a little to the silence at the center of the film, the silence within Christina. She’s the surrogate daughter, the surrogate lover, even the surrogate mother, to these emotionally crippled men. Exactly as you say, we don’t know what brought these people to this point. The stories that Christina could tell, or Tracey, or Francis’s dead daughter, would probably change all of this. That’s the heavy silence that creeps into all of it. It’s surely not all insidious, and maybe none of it is, but it’s still silent, impenetrable.
Marc: And so go the mysteries of Exotica. But let’s break down what we do know about the relationships between Christina and the two men who fixate on her. Eric meets Christina during the search for Francis’ daughter, and it’s assumed they eventually enter into some kind of relationship that ends acrimoniously. But the connection between Eric and Francis begins before they start “sharing” Christina. That’s when Eric finds the missing girl’s body, a moment that seems to affect him nearly as strongly as it does Francis. It’s her schoolgirl uniform that Eric pontificates about, even when alone: “What is it about a schoolgirl that gives her her special innocence?… They’ve got their whole lives ahead of them.” His MC-ing sexualizes the outfit in a creepy way, though I think that could be read as a subtle mockery of the club’s audience. He’s also now associating it with a woman he was very much attracted to and now remains out of reach.
So not only do Francis and Eric share a related trauma, they now share the same medium (Christina) for coping with it. And it works, for a while. Eric even admits to Christina that “you soothed me,” referring to when he would watch her role-playing with Francis. Maybe he was participating in his own way, or maybe he was only invested in keeping her as a literally untouchable object. He “tests” Francis’ motivations by tempting him to touch her, and the irony is that Francis only goes through with it as a way to test Christina— he says that if she had let him break that barrier, “I would have been disappointed.” Neither one of them can deal with the idea of her stepping outside of the role she plays in their heads.
That said, what keeps Christina from just opting out of the arrangement, like Francis’ niece Tracey does? It all comes back to the last scene (or the first, chronologically). I think there was something much worse than regular problems going on in Christina’s home, though pre-tragedy Francis seems oblivious to the extent of her suffering. Just look at that ominous final shot, with her walking mournfully back into a house that might as well be a prison. Exactly what happens between then and the next time we see her is another blank. But it’s the biggest clue we get as to what she gets out of her present-day meetings with Francis; Francis may be speaking to his “daughter” when he vows to protect her and expresses disbelief that anyone would hurt her, but it means something entirely different to Christina. Something that she needs to hear.
Jim: Ah, okay, you’re helping me see something. When Francis says that to Christina, more than once, while she’s lap dancing for him, “How could anyone hurt you,” I automatically heard it as Francis substituting Christina for his daughter, meaning the hurt someone did to his daughter, instead of hearing it literally asked of Christina. Right, that makes a lot of sense.
Substitutes, substitution, it defines the identity and function of many of the characters. From Francis’s perspective, Tracey is a substitute for Christina, who in turn is a substitute for his daughter. Zoe, the club owner (Arsinée Khanjian) is a substitute for her own mother. There’s some kind of arrangement between Eric and Zoe, whereby he fathered the child she’s carrying, which suggests that they’re both substitutes for one another’s potential, but non-existent, spouses. I suppose you could even say that Francis’s brother Harold (Victor Garber) was substituting for Francis for his wife’s affections, before the fateful car accident. And in a sense, you could say that Thomas is substituting for Francis when he wears the wire to get information from Christina.
In any case, a lot of people are standing in for each other. What do you think this signifies? So many of the characters are stuck in their lives, spinning in circles, reliving the past in an endless loop. Is substitution a way to perpetuate that recycling of the past? Clearly it is, so I guess I’m asking if substitution serves another function, perhaps suggesting certain perpetual roles that people play in one another’s lives. Is Egoyan signaling the notion of archetypes, that there will always be certain types of people that fulfill certain roles in the lives of others, regardless of circumstance? Individuals demand it. I think of Thomas and the several lovers he picks up at the opera. It’s a role that must be performed for him.
Marc: There’s a famous New Yorker article that’s stuck with me over the years, and it kept coming to mind this time watching the film. It’s called “Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry” by Elif Batuman, about a Japanese company that supposedly hires out actors to behave like friends or family of clients. The piece ends with the author back at her hotel, getting a massage and reflecting on her subjects. She’s suddenly struck with appreciation for the masseuse:
“I felt full of love and gratitude, and thought about how the fact that I was paying her, which could have felt uncomfortable, was instead a source of joy and relief, because it meant that I didn’t have to think about anything at all. I could just relax. It felt like unconditional love—the kind you don’t get, or ask for, from people in your life, because they have needs, too, and you always have to take turns. […] I’d started off assuming that the rental schema somehow undercut the idea of unconditional love. Now I found myself wondering whether it was even possible to get unconditional love without paying.”
She then shares what a psychology professor told her:
“He said that he thought rental relatives were, in an unschooled way, fulfilling some of the functions of group-therapy techniques such as psychodrama, in which patients act out and improvise one another’s past situations or mental processes. Dramatic reënactments can help people in a way that talking with them can’t, because even when we are unable to tell someone what our problem is—because it’s too terrible to say, or because we don’t have the right words, or because we don’t know what it is—we can still act it out with another person.”
It’s clear enough how all this applies to Exotica. But the author’s realization also helps bridge the gap between the role-playing in the film and how it might apply to our everyday lives. Just because an arrangement is transactional doesn’t necessarily make it less meaningful or even healing; plus, when it comes to Francis and Christina, it’s suggested that each is fulfilling a role for the other (regardless of the formality of payment). Eric insists that he knows the “real” Christina because they were lovers. But is that any more real than the symbiotic arrangement she has with Francis?
Of course the level of willful denial we see in the film can’t be sustained. The money isn’t enough for Tracey to stay comfortable with their artificial meetings. Both Eric and Francis are obsessed with Christina remaining “untouched,” which leads to a potentially deadly conflict. Then, strangely enough, it’s with Thomas that Francis first seems to cross the line into something authentic. At first Francis essentially blackmails him into participating in his little sting operation, but that doesn’t work when he asks for help killing Eric. Instead, he asks: “What about for me?” Thomas’ agreement implies they’ve crossed over into a real personal connection.
It’s also Thomas who finally does the same for Christina. All he does is touch her, but the sly smile on her face afterwards— when nothing bad happens and no one rushes in to stop it— may be her most genuinely happy moment. Significantly, Egoyan intercuts this with Eric and Francis embracing in the parking lot, finally acknowledging and understanding each other’s pain. Ultimately, I think Zoe has a point when she says this den of fantasies “isn’t a place for healing.” And when something like healing finally does happen between these two damaged men, it’s not within the walls of Exotica.
Jim: Right, and in Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos posits the idea of a service that rents out substitutes of the recently deceased to grieving families, better to cope with their loss, or so the theory goes. Of course the whole thing is steeped in absurdity, and Monte Rosa allows the personal to infect the transactional, and everything slides off the rails. Whatever the benefit of transactional substitutes, the fact that any of these people are going there is a clear sign it’s time to start turning the ship around. But Egoyan isn’t interested in looking forward to healthier times, only at inspecting the mechanisms by which the film’s feeble present functions. I can assure you an introductory month of talk therapy would do wonders for any and all of these poor souls.
On a lighter note, I gotta ask, because I wouldn’t know. Are there always a lot of hot, young gay men loitering outside ballet performances, eager for a ticket in? Thorny question, I know, but I have to ask. And what is that place where Harold and Tracey live? It’s like a mini-strip mall, and they live on the second floor above a take-out joint. Where in the hell did Egoyan come up with that place? Wouldn’t it be easier for a paraplegic to live on the ground floor? Seriously, though, I gotta give it to Egoyan for some really creative settings. My guess is he personally knew the owner, or a tenant, of that little mall.
Marc: Apparently in Egoyan-Land, you can’t throw a rock outside a ballet without hitting a tall dark gay man holding a ticket sign. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing? I’ll give it a shot the next time I’m at a sold-out show, but I think I’d have just as much luck outside the post office.
The director has an eye for off-kilter settings: the exotic pet shop, the strip mall apartment, and of course the grandiose design and hidden corridors of Exotica. And everywhere there’s green. The walls of the club, the fish tanks in the shop, the field with the search party. This time I noticed that the background of the pictures of Francis’ daughter in his living room are just blazing with the color. Whatever symbolic meaning you want to ascribe to it, it follows the characters everywhere, unspoken yet constantly present.
You mentioned Egoyan’s style earlier, aptly I think, as affected and using layers of artifice. That may be distancing to some viewers, but I think Exotica is the ideal meeting of form and content. The film is all about artifice, right? Everything is intentionally stylized and has a certain amount of humor about itself, or at least self-awareness. There’s the way Thomas keeps meeting eager young gay men at the ballet, and Eric’s increasingly ponderous speeches to a likely annoyed strip club audience. There’s a melodramatic tinge to Zoe’s pregnancy drama and much of the dialogue. That’s what I mean about getting on the film’s wavelength— modern audiences tend to take strict realism as a given, and anything else is “corny” or “contrived.”
How do you feel about that? Are you ever put off by deliberate artificiality, or is there enough raw emotion under the surface here to still reach you?
Jim: I’m entirely smitten by artificiality. I’m a film buff, after all.
I love Exotica for the intensity of its emotions. That’s what pushes it over the finish line for me. I’m just measuring the means by which Egoyan gets there.
When I talk about contrivance, or invention, in the few Egoyan films I’ve seen, including Exotica, I’m referring mostly to the way he writes dialogue, and mutes individuality. Character A makes a statement. Character B turns Character A’s statement into a question back to Character A, ad infinitum. Everyone talks with the same constructs and rhythms, meaning Egoyan’s. Each character is merely a facet of a single core person, the writer. Everyone struggles with the same general problem of loss, and deals with it by assigning a substitute. That’s contrived. But the story of Exotica is revelatory, for all the reasons we’ve discussed, which compels it to succeed where other films of his haven’t, namely The Sweet Hereafter, in my opinion, because Exotica goes deep and dark. It’s got balls. It dares to depart the field, which earns my infinite respect.
After only two watches, I didn’t pick up on the green theme, but now that you mention it…
What other features of the cinematography stand out for you?
Marc: Egoyan’s longtime cinematographer Paul Sarossy just knocks it out the park here. There’s a dreamlike aura right from the opening credits, from the bold color scheme to the looming angles. I’d compare Egoyan’s control of tone to that of Lynch or even Kubrick: chilly, just left-of-center, foreboding yet sometimes wryly comical. It’s definitely enhanced by the baroque, subtly disorienting score. There are so many shots I love, but I always get a chill each time we cut from Francis centered in the (green!) bathroom stall to the wide open field, tiny figures emerging in the distance. Even without knowing the significance, it’s a rush to suddenly open up into endless sky before returning to the claustrophobic club.
Speaking of editing, intercutting is an essential part of any Egoyan joint. Editor Susan Shipton maintains an instinctual rhythm between the disparate threads, so that Thomas’ adventures seem to be part of the same rising action as the insular worlds of Francis and Eric. I think the intensity of emotions you mention comes as much from juxtaposition as the writing and performances. If you’re in the mood after this, I’d encourage you to revisit The Sweet Hereafter at some point, which shares both a cinematographer and editor. It’s based on a novel, though I find the story to be similarly suited to the director’s elliptical approach to characters and storytelling. You’re right that it’s not as revelatory or out-there as Exotica, for sure. But I also wasn’t particularly taken with it until I re-watched it following this film. Maybe I still had the buzz going.
Jim: I think I’ll always associate this film with the shots in the club, the preponderance of that swampy tone of green which, like you say, repeats in the fish tanks in Thomas’ pet store. The trees, the plants, the murky lighting of the club, and Eric’s odd overhead DJ booth, that’s positioned and performs like the club’s id. The shots looking up and down the ladder that leads from Zoe’s lair beneath to the booth directly overhead. Great stuff.
I’m eager to move away from critical analysis and explore a little how the film connects with you personally. Is there a character that’s particularly relatable to you, or is there a broader theme, whether loss, grief, coping, or keeping secrets, that resonates with you? I’m not looking for gory details, but the recognition of a level of emotional ordeal that is commensurate with experiences of your own.
Marc: I think Exotica resonates with me on two fronts. I tend to react strongly to stories involving surrogate families, as twisted as that surrogacy is here. There’s something about people finding ways to fill emotional needs that have been warped, even if it involves denying or compartmentalizing them. As for why, I suppose a therapist could tell me. Being a child of divorce, feeling alone for a time outside of a larger community, etc. etc. I guess that’s part of why the last film we discussed, The Night of the Hunter, always has me in tears by the end. It’s basically a horror movie until the children find an old woman who takes in orphans during the Depression, forging an unconventional family unit as protection from the horrors lurking just outside.
The horrors in Exotica are all in the past, but the characters are still seeking shelter from them. Which brings me to a less obvious aspect that I respond to: the sense of community. Beyond Christina, we learn that Zoe, Eric, Francis’ brother and niece, and presumably everyone in town is aware of what happened to Francis, as well as the part they play in his rituals. As the song we keep hearing goes, “everybody knows.” Eric is basically a stranger to Francis, yet in the climax he reveals that “I know everything about you” before finally embracing him. For those of us who don’t believe in God, maybe that’s as close to being watched over and cared for— without arranging it for ourselves— as we can get.
All that must be why the final scene hits me in the gut. Christina has been a supporting player in everyone else’s stories, but she too turns out to be in desperate need of family and protection. The difference is that it goes unacknowledged. We’re in the past, before any of the other characters have started to spiral, and no one is coming together to watch over her. That’s the secret tragedy of the film, and she’s the one who keeps drawing me back.
Jim: You know, I have to say I was a little confused about that, both times I watched it, meaning the “community” of which these people are a part. Is it a small town? Exotica, the club, is obviously in a large city, since we see the skyscrapers of Toronto behind it. The little strip mall looks exurban. There are no visual clues as to what this place is, so no sense of locale, of the shape of the community, where it is, how big it is. That left me a bit adrift about how these people seem to both know and not know each other. There’s a small town vibe, but then there’s not. I first assumed that Francis was from out of town when he begins his audit of Thomas. It just seemed like a very odd and discomforting situation to have a tax auditor investigating someone in his own community. I know it happens, but it didn’t square right with me. The idea that Francis and Eric don’t know each other well also seems odd, if it’s a small town. But then do random urban residents gather for search parties in rural areas, then come back together over the ensuing years in a strip club? Eric discovered Francis’ dead daughter. And Francis doesn’t know that? Sorry, you probably think all I do is look for logic and validation errors when critiquing a film. I do have a thing, I admit, about obsessing over where and when with every film I watch. I would have been easily content accepting it as urban or otherwise, if I’d received consistent clues, but it’s pretty unclear, you have to admit.
Whether it was a conscious choice by Egoyan or not to muddy the sense of place and social setting, it certainly works to focus the energy of the film into the characters and their inner selves.
I can relate with a lot of these people, or feel great sympathy for them. Francis is a basket case who needs serious help. All the more mature characters need counseling, badly. I can relate to Eric, to lose your ideal, to be rejected by her, but after that happened to me, I spent three years in therapy. I feel for all of them, but they’re not doing anything to help themselves, at least until the very end. But I agree with you, I feel the most for Christina, because she’s been used and abused by everyone. No one’s taking her money for comfort. But I will say again, it’s hard for me to feel too strongly about people who’ve had what, a couple years to process all this, and they’re still just basting in their own juices?
Marc, I’m gonna leave the floor open to you to take this where you want. I’m not cueing curtains. I’d like to talk more about the film from your prompts, not mine.
Marc: We’ve covered a lot of ground, so I want to make sure we talk about the performances. Bruce Greenwood is mostly a character actor who people might recognize from indie films like Meek’s Cutoff and Egoyan’s own The Sweet Hereafter, or, apparently, the new Star Trek movies. (I saw them and had no idea.) He can be hard to pick out, but that might be what makes him so effective in this role. He has a difficult task with a character like Francis, who has to be a mystery for much of his screen time and rarely emotes outside of the climax. But he looks so ordinary, he might be the ideal type for a movie where outward appearances are almost always deceptive. That makes it all the more powerful when we see his deep well of grief and denial start to creep to the surface. I don’t think the film would work nearly as well without his specific modulation of remoteness vs sincerity.
All the actors do fine work, like Egoyan’s real-life wife Arsinée Khanjian (as Zoe) and Sarah Polley (as Tracey), who has an even more pivotal role in The Sweet Hereafter. There’s also Don McKellar as Thomas, whose character looks strangely like Egoyan himself. I don’t really have anywhere to go with this, but google Atom Egoyan and try not to think of Thomas’ bespectacled nerd.
As Eric, Elias Koteas also has a pretty tricky line to toe between pre-occupied creep and tragic loner. I was struck by how different he seems in the flashbacks, how much younger and less jaded. He definitely has the mesmerizing voice that Christina remarks on when they first meet, yet he’s not afraid to seem petty and unhinged when not acting as the film’s portentous MC.
And since I keep bringing up Christina, we should discuss Mia Kirshner. Glancing at a list of her work, she went on to a decent career in TV but had few film roles anywhere close to this. There are moments where I can see Egoyan’s direction at work, namely his preference for stiltedness— she can become monotone, disconnected, like a girl too young to quite be a convincing femme fatale. But when she’s one-on-one with Francis, her emotions are just devastatingly raw. Then in the closing flashback, I can hardly believe it’s the same person playing the nerdy, closed-off girl whose secret pain hasn’t yet been deeply hidden. I don’t know if that makes her a great actor, but I think she’s perfectly cast for what this role demands. What do you think? About her and all of the above?
Jim: Although I know it’s her, I’m a little amazed that young Christina, in the end, or even during the search party scenes, is being played by the same actor as mature Christina. So good job there, probably mostly with costume, hair and make-up.
I’m not familiar with any of these actors, with the exception of Arsinée Khanjian. Because, as you point out, Egoyan directs his actors to play somewhat stiffly, or unaffectedly, it’s hard for me to assess performance from actors I don’t know. Recently, when I was discussing The Lobster with Adam Davie, we got into this same discussion, about the quality of performance from actors who are being directed to play rigidly. In the case of that film, I’m very familiar with those actors, so it was much easier for me to identify what aspects of their personalities and performance styles were actively at work, and which weren’t, and how that marked the strength of their acting. Here, I don’t have that insight. They all seem like fine performers, who pulled off their roles effectively. There were no standouts for me, which goes back around to what I think is the weakest part of the film, namely poor individuation, primarily through dialogue. None of these characters are terribly unique individuals, which may be by design.
Marc: I see what you’re saying about the dialogue, though I’m content to accept that as part of the design. And I’m glad you brought up The Lobster, because Yorgos Lanthimos is the perfect reference point for eerily stilted performances. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in particular, seems like it takes place on a different planet just by virtue of everyone’s complete lack of affect. Egoyan isn’t quite at that extreme, at least here. (Speaking Parts probably comes closest.)
I have to wonder, what happened to this director? At the time, Ebert described Exotica as “announcing Egoyan’s arrival in the first rank of filmmakers.” Its follow-up The Sweet Hereafter was Oscar-nominated and possibly even more critically acclaimed. And then… well, I may be speaking out of turn, since I haven’t seen any of the seven films between that and Remember. But word of mouth has kept me far away. Apparently, they include sleazy erotic thrillers, a pointless dramatization of the West Memphis Three case already covered in the Paradise Lost films, and something called The Captive with Ryan Reynolds (already a bad sign) that was roundly panned. Rotten Tomatoes summarizes the consensus around his most recent film, Guest of Honour, as “a frustratingly limited return to form.”
I have to laugh every time I see Exotica’s tagline: “In a world of temptation, obsession is the deadliest desire.” It makes a certain amount of sense, but it reeks of a studio trying to market an unmarketable film as a lurid, sexy thriller. Ironically, Egoyan seems to now be making those very films. It’s pointless to speculate, but maybe certain artists just burn brightly in the right time and place, only to end up unable to sustain their inspiration long-term. Do you have any thoughts about that in general? Are there other filmmakers who come to mind, or artists you love who started letting you down and then never seemed to stop?
Jim: Can’t speak to Egoyan, since I know so little about him. I am curious about Chloe, though, if only because it seems to consistently piss people off, and the cast is great, so I’ll probably look at that soon. I can only imagine how hard it must be to take a very independent, non-commercial, non-Hollywood, approach to filmmaking, have some success in the arthouses, but never get the attention other similar directors do. I can’t honestly say, given what I’ve seen of his films, that I’m surprised he didn’t have the success of someone like Todd Haynes or Olivier Assayas, who I would consider somewhat adjacent to Egoyan. He’s cool, but, in my opinion, there’s something absent in his films that prevents, or prevented, him from really catching on. Egoyan is considered part of the loosely knit Toronto New Wave of the 1980s. Are you familiar with any of the other directors in that stable? That could lend some insight. I seriously doubt any other film of his I see I’ll enjoy as much as Exotica.
I can’t think of any directors I feel that way about. Michael Cimino flamed-out, but that’s a different league. Actually, I do think Coppola, Daddy Coppola, Francis Ford, completely nose-dived after Apocalypse Now, but again, kind of a separate corner of the film world. At least Sofia keeps the name respectable and relevant. If I think of a better answer, I’ll let you know. There are plenty of actors I feel that way about, but that’s a conversation with no end.
I do want to mention that, on the subject of transactional relationships, I started watching The Girlfriend Experience series on Starz. And recently I saw Shiva Baby, so, combined with Exotica, there’s something in the air around here about transactional relationship stories. None co-starring me, though.
Marc: Coppola is such a great answer. It’s hard to think of a better example of a director going from an unbroken string of classics into a more or less permanent decline, with only intermittent highlights. Woody Allen is another, though it took him much longer to nosedive. Even in his prime he could be uneven, but at a certain point the highlights just fizzled out to the point where his name inspires more dread than anything— and not just concerning his personal life. I don’t even like his so-called “returns to form” like Blue Jasmine or Midnight in Paris (Match Point comes closest for me). Sometimes the well just goes dry.
Looking at a list of Toronto New Wave directors and films, not much is ringing a bell. Though apparently Don McKellar, who plays Thomas, is a filmmaker in his own right. Egoyan was definitely the major crossover success of the group, and at least he’s still able to make films; Remember really is a lot of fun, if in a way completely unrelated to his early work. I just don’t see many independent filmmakers today with the kind of structural and stylistic ambition he had in the 90’s. Pre-Dark Knight Christopher Nolan, maybe, before he had the kind of money to indulge his military and spy fetishes. We certainly don’t get this kind of mystery and depth from any of the tepid everything-is-connected dramas like Crash. Not that there aren’t plenty of exciting, original directors out there working, Yorgos Lanthimos among them (though I wish he’d get back to writing original screenplays). But I think this particular torch may still be laying on the ground, waiting to be picked up.
Jim: I’m of the opinion that all artists only have one story to tell, or one song to play, or one image to shape, and they just repeat it over and over. The trick is how well they can refashion it each time to keep it looking fresh. Some can keep it up longer than others.
Since my last reply, I watched Chloe. It’s pretty bad. This is a conversation about Exotica, so I won’t get into Chloe much, but it’s working with Egoyan’s familiar themes of repressed desires and shame, even transactional relationships. Amanda Seyfried’s performance is the only commendable thing about it, while Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson are given close to nothing to do, at least nothing useful. There’s a respectable twist near the end, but the plot is absurdly contrived, and flat-footed in its delivery. It’s chock full of weird, nonsensical meet-ups, extraneous dialogue, and for an erotic thriller, it’s strangely unerotic, which, given Amanda Seyfried’s participation, is an uncommendable feat in and of itself.
Unless you’ve got something more to add, Marc, I sense we’re pulling into the station.
Marc: I’m glad, in a way, for you to confirm I haven’t been missing out on later films like Chloe. While I wish Egoyan the best, it sounds like we already got the most potent distillation of his “one story” a while ago. Still, I’ll be next in line if he keeps pursuing the unapologetically distasteful thrills of elderly Nazi-hunting.
I think we’ve gotten to pretty much all of my thoughts about Exotica. So I want to thank you again for the chance to engage in a discussion like this. I write a lot about movies, but I rarely get a chance to dive in so thoroughly and bounce ideas off another cinephile. Exotica, like a great novel, is dense and illusive enough to invite that kind of dissection, even after the pieces all seem to come together. And its themes are still coming up everywhere from Alps to Shiva Baby to The Girlfriend Experience. This has been as rewarding as I’d hoped. Sorry for inspiring you to watch Chloe, though.
Jim: It’s all good. Thanks for expanding my grasp of Egoyan. It was fun pouring over this film with you, Marc. We’ll do it again.
Marc: Until next time! Take care.