One of the key lines in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) comes when a guy handily points out to Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) that “dancin’ ain’t fuckin’”. What this means in the context of Joe Ezstherhas’ script is perfectly clear: don’t confuse performance with love, illusion with reality, fantasy with truth. The premise of Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is exactly the opposite.
For the lap dancers and rapt spectators in this film, dancin’ and fuckin’ are somewhat the same thing: a shared sexual fantasy is a reality, or at least creates its own reality. (This is perhaps also true of some ticket-buyers who, I’m reliably informed, often fronted up seeking admission to Erotica.) But the characters are not presented as perverts, deviates or even people living on the edge; they have many sexual dispositions but, in every significant respect, they’re just everyday folk. They have families, go to work, balance their books … and, as in every Egoyan film, they also deceive and fantasise, keep their secrets, and carve out their own illicit outlets – whenever, wherever and however they can.
For Canadian director Egoyan – as for Jane Campion – sexuality can never be separated from the ways it manifests itself, the ways it is mediated, displaced, repressed, projected, sublimated … and also performed. I’ll confess that, at first glance, Exotica perplexed me. I thought, beforehand, that I had Egoyan pretty much figured out. I had interpreted his previous films Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989) and The Adjuster (1991) as cold, intellectual, essentially leftist essays: unmasking men’s sordid, patriarchal, voyeuristic fantasies, and lamenting our alienated, screwed-up, inhuman society. You can tell an Egoyan movie (I reckoned) from a mile away: one in which the characters grimly play out all sorts of twisted fantasies under the watchful eye of a hidden (or not so hidden) video camera. And I always considered Egoyan to be preaching – not all that differently to Esztherhas – that all these shenanigans are a terrible, terrible waste.
But after Exotica, I am no longer so sure of all this. In a fascinating interview in the American magazine Filmmaker, Egoyan says that he never meant all that video stuff in his earlier films to be bleak and judgmental. He finds it, on the contrary, hot and sexy, a visualisation or materialisation of what contemporary psychoanalysis calls the imaginary, the desiring (and projecting) unconscious. And he is candid about the drive behind making Exotica: “I think everyone is fascinated by sex, and by how we can distort our own sexual lives. We’re always fascinated to see how other people respond to sexual drives, since we’re all trying to work out our own sexual needs all the time”.
All the disparate characters in this story converge on a smoky nightclub where women perform lap-dances for an all-male clientele. Francis (Bruce Greenwood) is a tax auditor, and he frequents the club because of his particular fixation on young Christina (Mia Kirshner from the abominable Love and Human Remains [Denys Arcand, 1993]). Christina’s sexual persona in the club is that of an innocent schoolgirl – a typical porno fantasy. We soon learn that other characters share Francis’ obsession, each for their own reasons; these characters include Eric (the wonderful Elias Koteas), the club’s lugubrious DJ, who is Christina’s ex-lover; and Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), who has taken over running the club from her late mother. Even a pet-store owner, Thomas (filmmaker Don McKellar), in the process of being audited by Francis, gets roped into this strange and unsettling intrigue. Very slowly, the various secrets of these characters, and their complex interrelationships, are revealed.
Naturally, when it comes to the actual depiction of all these sexual drives and fantasies, this film is nothing like Showgirls. The erotic dancing component is simple, tame, rather discreetly stylised. Egoyan is careful to take away any overt traces of prurient voyeurism or sensationalism (worst luck!). He has a battery of tricks and devices to ensure that we take this as the art film he intends. For example, he repeats key actions – such as Christina doing her prepared dance routine to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” – and has Eric recite his DJ monologue about innocent schoolgirls over and over at different points of the story. That repetition distances us from the immediate charge of such details, while also making them more ambiguous and enigmatic – just the way Paul Schrader used this same device in The Comfort of Strangers (1991).
There are things here that make me think Egoyan is straining to be modern, enlightened and progressive: a slightly forced or contrived quality to the way that he includes gay characters, or hints of an inter-racial relationship, or Zoe as a strong, pregnant woman wandering around the grim guys in the club. But, despite those aspects, for all intents and purposes Exotica is indeed a kind of soft core sex fantasy for straight guys – and perhaps it is not, in the final analysis, ashamed to be exactly that.
Let me explain. In the Filmmaker interview, Egoyan says that he uses images of aquariums and plant life to suggest that the natural sex drive can grow nicely in a controlled environment – but also wildly, out of control. Our society really gives us no sanctioned, legitimate way to cultivate our sexualities; especially if we factor into the erotic equation all those fantasy projections and perverse interests mentioned above. Exotica suggests that, in the absence of such social openness, the sex club offers a necessary space to work through erotic fantasy; it is a place exactly mid-way between a controlled and a wild environment. Intriguing hypothesis!
Ultimately, the film resonates strongly with another provoactive and successful movie of the 1990s, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989). Both films make a show of embracing things that are perverse, alienated, even a bit creepy in contemporary regimes of sexuality. But they do so for a good, New Age reason: to explore the tentative possibilities for a healing of our fraught, over-stimulated psyches. Exotica dramatises, in many ways, a certain kind of collective, therapeutic process that unfolds between a group of slightly seedy people – a surprising and not entirely convincing destination.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this movie is the way it addresses – or rather, circles – one quite particular sexual fantasy. Very early on, it begins to interrelate two facets of Francis’ life: his fixation on Christina, and the loss of his daughter. It’s almost as if the abruptness of the latter trauma has caused the derailment or wild outgrowth of his erotic drive in the former direction. As events unfold further, we observe Francis’ equally strange – “over-ritualised”, as Egoyan might say – relation to Tracey (Sarah Polley), the teenage daughter of his brother, Harold (Victor Garber), who is attached to a whole other branch of the plot I won’t detail here. Francis does nothing bad to Tracey, he simply pays her to “mind” his empty house (for no good reason) while he’s out, and then drives her home when he returns. She’s obviously a daughter-substitute, another kind of compensation for his loss. But there’s a freaky intensity to the whole business.
In essence, the thing that is most obviously, most plainly going in Exotica is the thing that’s never articulated out aloud, because it’s the most casually shocking. Egoyan is again perfectly frank about it: “It’s his incest fantasy, which is never dealt with in the film” – i.e., never made explicit. Again, the important point is the fact that this fantasy is not represented as a hideous perversion, but a perfectly natural element of family life; one which, because of tragic circumstances, happens to go astray, and then has to be (like the other sex drives in the story) worked-through therapeutically.
The final scene tries (possibly: it’s an oblique coda) to give another twist to this fantasy scenario: to see it from Christina’s desiring perspective, as it were. But Exotica’s unusual power does not come so much from its revelations or even its twists, but the more pervasive fact that its key, its centre, is maintained at a level which is secret. In other words, a subterranean phantasm (in psychoanalytic terms, a desire that elaborates itself into a structuring scenario or logic), but one which is consciously deployed by Egoyan and played out, as it were, “between the lines”.
Whatever one makes of Exotica in terms of its meanings, it certainly marks a clear advance in Egoyan’s craft as a director: a careful mastery over rhythm, use of the camera, and the ensemble of the actors, is evident for (in my opinion) the first time in his career. He still has problems with characterisation – especially the women characters – and with writing decent dialogue. But overall, this is, without a doubt, his most accomplished film to date. It’s haunting, and gets into your head.
Many well-meaning directors of the 1990s (including Isaac Julien and Robert Lepage) have attempted to blend art cinema themes with the narrative lure of the mystery genre. Egoyan is among the first to pull off this combination without selling either tradition short.
© Adrian Martin October 1995