Contrary to Miramax’s hyperbolic Hollywood advertising, Atom Egoyan’s labyrinthine work Exotica is not the erotic thriller it purports to be. Rather, Exotica, named after the Toronto strip club around which it’s built, is a work of subterranean connections and coincidences, psychological warfare and compelling rivalries, finely wrought by Egoyan into an unsettling, dramatic plot. 



Many things are not as they seem in Exotica, typified by the club’s beguiling atmosphere: there are no rambunctious bachelor parties, no cheap red velvet furnishings. The clientele are dressed in suits, Leonard Cohen’s booming baritone melts from the speakers and the club’s cavernous interiors could almost pass as a set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Setting is not the only feature that links Exotica with Shakespeare’s comedy: the two share an affinity for twisting subplots that crescendo towards catharsis and the feeling that numinous, external forces are forever manipulating our behaviour, twisting it towards their unarticulated aims.

In the murky blue light of this Toronto strip club, Francis Brown, a regular grieving the loss of his daughter, buys the company of dancer Christina. Far from a series of transactional erotic exchanges, their ritual meetings express a shared intimacy based more on loss and grief than superficial thrills. They talk, though we don’t really know what is they talk about. Only that they get “intense” as the club’s DJ notes, in a no less intense scene. As the pair’s fates intermingle with those of the club’s owner, DJ, and Thomas – a pet shop owner involved in smuggling rare macaw eggs – the film’s complex geometry is revealed in a thrilling sequence of events that shows Egoyan at the height of his dramatic powers.

Speaking to the BFI on the films 25th anniversary, Egoyan spoke about the film’s Foucauldian origins, particularly around the ideas of the “heterotopia” and the “panopticon”. “The convergence of those three things became what’s called a heterotopia,” said Egoyan, “this really interesting [Michel] Foucault expression for a place where different realities converge in an actual physical space. And then also this notion of the panopticon, where in the classic prison design there’s an observation place where nothing can be hidden – constant surveillance. This idea of creating a panopticon within the club, where all these people were being observed and yet none of them really understood what their connections were to each other, that begins to create this very interesting erotic tension, even though there’s no overt sexuality.”



This tension also finds expression in the percussive rhythms of the film’s soundscape. Rarely does the film relax into moments of still silence, as if to highlight the inescapable noise that muffles human understanding, indeed, self-understanding. Despite the claustrophobic connections that bind this motley group of characters, they appear separate, distant from each other, as if wounded somehow into the same, mysterious plot. Perhaps, like Shakespeare’s comedies, the characters will find resolution in a pomp-filled, ceremonial ending? There’s something like that, but in the way you least expect it. Described by Egoyan as “the best ending I’ve ever come up with”, the simplicity of the film’s final image belies its endlessly compelling, patterned interiors.



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