Atom Egoyan, 1994

#11 (chronologically) in Mike D'Angelo's list of twelve films to which he would give a score of 100 out of 100.

A Revenue Canada official spends his days auditing a suspected parrot smuggler and his nights at a strip club where he gets lap dances from a young woman with whom he seems to be commiserating more than anything else.

Atom Egoyan is the main person I had in mind when I wrote Pattern 10: "A story doesn't have to be told in sequence, but it must be good enough that the audience would find it compelling if told in sequence." A lot of Egoyan's work — Where the Truth Lies, Felicia's Journey, this — relies on the same formula: Here's someone acting in a wacky way! Let's very slowly find out why! Pretty much every story relies on mystery and misdirection to some degree, but Exotica does so much more so than most — in scene after scene, the primary point of interest is, "What's the relationship between those two?" When you watch those scenes already knowing the relationship, there's a lot less there. Though unlike some movies of this type, at least there's something.

The main thing this movie is about is people revisiting and re-enacting traumas and other significant moments of their lives. This is more than just a device, because lots of people actually do this, including something like eighty percent of Loveline callers. ("Why do I always end up dating guys who beat me up?" "Were you beaten as a child?" "Well, yeah, but how is that relevant?") Exotica actually goes pretty significantly over the top with this, as scene after scene after scene depicts one character or another repeating something that happened either in the backstory or in the previous reel. But it dovetailed with a special interest of mine, one that I've already put into a couple of my forthcoming projects, so I didn't mind so much that Egoyan overdid it.

Adam and Elizabeth talk about Exotica (spoilers)
A: We first met (if you can call it that) when you emailed me out of the blue to recommend this movie. Having now seen it again, would you still make Exotica fandom the cornerstone of a stranger's first impression of you?
E: I was actually not a huge Exotica fan at the time — I happened to have just watched it and also happened to have just read your Photopia Phaq in which you said that The Sweet Hereafter was your favorite movie. It seemed like a good opening gambit for a conversation. I was a little bit worried on this second viewing that it would turn out to be crap. My taste in movies in those days was not very consistent. When we picked the DVD up from the library I was struck by the thought that the box was not very confidence-inspiring. "In A World Of Temptation, Obsession Is The Deadliest Desire." What does that even mean? Also that's not Mia Kirshner on the cover — just some random scantily-clad gyrating lady.
A: So, let's fire up the ol' VLC media player and take a look at some scenes. [clicks traffic cone icon; movie starts, but the taskbar pops up]
E: Oh no! The cone failed us!
A: No! That is my wallpaper changer activating. It's on a timer. The cone is blameless! Apologize to the cone.
E: "Sorry, cone." "That's okay!"
A: Don't speak for the cone.
E: [movie starts] Hey, it's an eastern version of Sweet Hereafter music.
A: Why does David Hemblen get such prominent billing when he's only in this one scene?
E: I don't know whether it is actually supposed to mean anything, but I like all of the one-way windows. I guess it is part of the whole theme of voyeurism, but...
A: I like the enormous cell phone in the cab scene. 1994 yuppies are to phones what Flavor Flav is to wristwatches. Okay, now we're in the club. I have to say, I found the DJ very annoying. Like, I know he's the villain, but there's villainous and then there's annoying. Also, he has a terrible job. I think that after listening to my own repetitive patter for an hour I would start punching myself in the face.
E: I think he's supposed to be annoying.
A: Is his hair supposed to be annoying?
E: It is grotesque. And obviously his patter was, from his perspective, supposed to be sexy and make the men pay many dollars to watch naked ladies, but from our perspective, we are supposed to see that it is repetitive and discomfort-making and sad.
A: Yeah, I really don't like entertainments whose chief aim is to make you spend time with people you would hate spending time with. Which is not the same as hating a character — a lot of times you can despise a character but still enjoy the movie or the show when they're onscreen. But, for instance, when you showed me the first episode of the British version of The Office, I hated it, and not just because I needed to turn on the subtitles to understand what everyone was saying. It was that the whole exercise was about spending time with this incredibly annoying guy who kept trying to make jokes but was a buffoon about it and hurt people's feelings. I wasn't going to voluntarily fork over another half hour of my life for the privilege of enduring this cretin.
E: I like The Office in part because I think that character is well-drawn — he is almost unbelievably boorish and intolerable and yet I have known several people in my life who are boorish and intolerable in exactly that way. And I think he is also an oddly sad character. He is so desperate to be liked and tries so hard to be funny even though he consistently fails. I also appreciated the way the show conveys the way in which working in a paper office would make you want to put a gun in your mouth.
A: Yes! I wanted to put a gun in my mouth!
E: [strip club scene continues] I cannot speak from experience but somehow I don't think that a real strip club would look much like the one in Exotica.
A: Yeah, and they're not playing "Pour Some Sugar on Me." I haven't been to a strip club either, but I have watched girls stripping on webcams, and, well, as much as I love seeing girls take off their clothes, when you add the dancing it becomes kind of ludicrous. And since they're usually dancing to rap, the negative starts to outweigh the positive.
E: Most strip clubs don't have Leonard Cohen songs and strange interpretive dances.
A: I thought Cookie Monster was singing the song. Y'know, to make Christina seem even jailbaitier.
E: How do you think it would have been different if she had been stripping to "C is for Cookie"?
A: It would have been good enough for me.
E: Hey, it's Maury Chaykin!
A: He gets as much screen time as David Hemblen — I wonder why he doesn't get equal billing.
E: [Bruce Greenwood appears] There's Man With Beard!
A: Did you see Showgirls?
E: Yes.
A: I think that in Showgirls we were actually supposed to find the dancing kind of good. Like, when she ends up at the expensive hotel, I think we're actually supposed to be impressed by the high production values and the choreography and stuff. Though, wait — come to think of it, I think we're supposed to find the dancing in this good too!
E: Yes. I did wonder what Egoyan was thinking when he told her to dance that way. But maybe it was her own idea to dance that way.
A: And now here's the fake money.
E: It's not fake. It is old, though. It's nice to have money with different colors.
A: When the parrot guy is staring at another guy's crotch at the ballet is it just supposed to be signalling to us that he's gay, or are we supposed to be noticing that the other guy has an erection? I can't tell. I mean, they're wearing pants.
E: I'm not sure. I think maybe he was supposed to have ballet wood.
A: Speaking of the parrot guy, we never find out what happens with the parrot eggs, do we? That whole thread kind of gets dropped.
E: Yes, that was puzzling.
A: YAY, here's Sarah Polley. She is so great. What I like about this first scene is that even though the main thing the movie wants us to think is, "Oh, we just saw Man With Beard at a strip club and now here he is in a terrible part of town with a wide-eyed 14-year-old girl and he's giving her money!", there is actually a lot of substance in this scene even when we already know what their real relationship is. I love how Tracey gets the sense that she's also being paid to act a role, but unlike Christina, she's very mechanical about it. "So you want me to ask more questions?"
E: The fish tanks in the pet store are cloudy and unclean. I guess they just had them look that way to contribute to the atmosphere, but they are gross.
A: Here's the girl-girl smoochin'. That gets dropped too. A lot of these plot threads don't go anywhere. Also, a lot of the dialogue is not so great — who says "you mustn't worry" aloud? — and the actors can't all pull it off the way Sarah Polley can. Speaking of whom, it's interesting how Man With Beard mentally divides up the aspects of daughterdom between the two girls, with Tracey getting assigned the inquisitiveness. I remember reading an article about how many couples today choose not to have kids in part because of the freedom — an affluent childless couple can jet off to Italy or wherever more or less on a whim, for instance. The writer of the article said that while that was true, no vacation would have given her husband nearly as much joy as having their ten-year-old daughter ask, "Dad, what was the Iran-Contra scandal?" And I read that and thought, holy smokes, that is so totally me it is scary. I want to have a daughter in large part so that she can ask me about Iran-Contra when she's ten.
E: Poor Man With Beard. So unintentionally creepy.
A: So you think he's supposed to be creepy and not realize it? Or is he not supposed to be creepy, and yet he is?
E: The first one. [scene changes to one of the DJ and Christina] And he's like Travis Bickle.
A: Who, the DJ or Man With Beard?
E: The DJ.
A: He very obviously wants to bone her. I've seen a lot of guys totally overdo it with the chatter when they're interested in a girl — they might as well be holding up signs over their heads saying "I WANT TO BONE YOU". What I don't understand why she would actually respond positively. He is horrible!
E: She has low self-esteem. She likes anyone who thinks she is good. Look at the ending, where she's so happy because Man Not Yet With Beard says she's a responsible young lady. That is not a very good compliment!
A: And we're on to the scene where he talks Man With Beard into doing something stupid by putting on a silly accent. As if Man With Beard wouldn't recognize the voice of the man who talks for hours on end at the strip club he visits several times a week.
E: Do you know the lesson Egoyan is trying to get across in the bathroom scene?
A: "Don't listen to strange men in bathrooms?"
E: I think it's supposed to be "Never trust a Mexican."
A: Yay, here are Mia Kirshner's breasts. They are so pretty. Still, I have no idea why the box says this is an "erotic thriller": it's not actually erotic and it's not a thriller.
E: Worst movie box ever.
A: On to the part with the wire. You know, I think this may be the only movie ever made in which someone's wearing a wire and it works fine and doesn't start broadcasting police radio signals or something.
E: I think the laptop computer holds up better after all these years than the phone.
A: I also really like how Christina is so nice to the parrot guy right off the bat.
E: Maybe she can sense that he's not interested in her boobies. Ha ha ha! I love the look of appalled horror on Man With Beard's face as he sits in the car listening to the parrot guy babble.
A: Yeah, that is completely great. Egoyan is rarely funny but I think this is supposed to be the big laugh in the movie. Worked for me!
E: Once I went into an Indian restaurant I had not tried before. It was about two o'clock in the afternoon and the place was completely empty except for me and the proprietor. When I walked through the door, his face broke into an enormous grin and he said, "Melissa!" I said, "Um, no." He quickly recovered from his mistake and showed me to a table. For the next hour and a half or so he fed me free food, but in exchange, wanted to call me Melissa and hold my hand. He said that he had known a girl named Melissa who looked just like me who had disappeared after a bout of boyfriend troubles. I was so weirded out that I never returned to the restaurant even though he promised more free food. I wasn't into being Melissa. I am like Sarah Polley in that respect.

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