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LOOK BUT DON'T TOUCH
Liza Bear Interviews Exotica’s Atom Egoyan

With his provocative sixth feature Exotica now playing in ten major cities, 35-year-old Canadian director Atom Egoyan adds to a stunningly cogent body of work that includes his earlier features Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, and Calendar. The Miramax release is at last bringing the writer-director, his leading actress/partner Arsinée Khanjian, and a long-time distinguished cast and crew the more widespread U.S. exposure that they warrant.

Highly original in both theme and structure – Egoyan favors multiple points of view and intercutting between parallel action – his richly textured films are elegant, complex, wryly funny, yet touching in unexpected ways. Never wasting valuable screen time with initial exposition, Egoyan assuredly maintains drama and suspense in spite of unconventional narrative strategies. The blend of a calm, measured performance style with sharp, edgy dialogue gives many of the scenes in an Egoyan film a thoroughly unnerving quality. Yet his characters and their predicaments remain strangely affecting; the worlds of his films are so impeccably crafted that they enable the oddest circumstances to seem authentic.

Egoyan is especially adept at unmasking personal cover-ups – small idiosyncracies of sexual or financial behavior. Picking up thematic threads from earlier films, notably The Adjuster, which features actor David Hemblen as an evaluator of pornographic films ("Our purpose is to classify rather than censor"), in Exotica Egoyan again handles ticklish subject matter with amazing sobriety and barely a wink, revealing the ways in which erotic fantasy serves as a shield and voyeurism as a placebo. But he continues to probe, rather than exploit, the quicksands of emotion, desire, and yearning for the "Other" – those treacherous points where one emotion slipsides into another and you risk losing control.

A tax inspector by day, at night Francis (Bruce Greenwood) attempts to assuage his grief for a lost daughter by engaging in an erotic ritual with Christina (Mia Kirshner), a sexy young lap dancer in schoolgirl uniform, at an eerie upscale strip club. Christina is the erotic if not dramatic focus of the film; everyone’s attracted to her. The film proceeds in reverse, in thriller-like mode, and gradually the intertwined relationships between the film’s other characters are stealthily unraveled in the course of the film’s denouement.

 

Filmmaker: How crucial to your story was the setting of Exotica in a strip club?

Egoyan: If you look at other societies, they’ve always been able to embrace the idea of a bacchanal in some way. It’s been very important for them to have a collective sexual outlet. The strip club is the closest we come to that in our society, a place where we can go and have a collective sexual experience and feel that its parameters are somehow set. You’re allowed to play out a fantasy life in a public setting. I think it’s an interesting environment from that point of view.

Filmmaker: You weren’t worried about the sexist implications?

Egoyan: You know, to be honest, I was so suspicious of that type of establishment and its depiction that I just trusted my feelings would somehow come through. I thought it would be impossible for me to exploit the situation given my own attitude [towards it]...

Filmmaker: An attitude of suspicion.

Egoyan: And that if I let go and didn’t really think about it too much, the audience would feel comfortable... Well, not comfortable, that wasn’t the point. It was important for me to set the film in this world, and I wanted to be true to that world. The camera has an uncanny ability to discern what the filmmaker is thinking of.

Filmmaker: I think you ride a really fine line between seducing a viewer and disturbing her. Was that your intention?

Egoyan: I didn’t want to deny the element of seduction in those clubs, and I obviously went all out to create a really beautiful club. Most strip clubs are really depressing.

Filmmaker: I can imagine. With the plants and shadowy lights, yours felt like being under water. People move in the way you have to under water, a kind of slow hypnotic way.

Egoyan: Well, it’s interesting you should say that because the idea of an aquarium figured very prominently in the film.

Filmmaker: Oh yes, there’s a real one in Thomas’ pet shop.

Egoyan: Right. I meant the idea that nature has to be tended to and looked after and if it’s not, it becomes overgrown and goes off in all sorts of directions you don’t intend.

Filmmaker: The aquatic feel of the set design worked really well because there are all these images of fertility. (The owner of the club, Zoe, is pregnant.) It evoked the fetus swimming, and also the birth of fantasy, so it made perfect sense as an image system for the film. Because water is where things begin.

Egoyan: Oh that’s great.

Filmmaker: So, you were able to override the tawdry aspects of the strip club. If people are disturbed by it, it’s certainly not because of the décor, it’s because of what’s going on there – table dancing. Could you talk about Zoe’s attraction to Christina?

Egoyan: So much of the clichéd view of those clubs is that they’re run by men, [so] I thought it would be interesting to reverse [the genders] and have the club run by a woman who’s taking advantage of the situation. Though she’s also confused about it, she’s trying to assert her own identity and exert control over the club. But she’s inherited the club from her mother who’s still a powerful influence on her. She’s always trying on her mother’s old wigs and costumes... she’s weighed down by them.

Filmmaker: You were becoming a father while Exotica was in production. What effect did being an expectant parent have on the orientation of the whole project?

Egoyan: Everyone talks about the joy of the anticipation of having a child, and that’s very much part of it, but there’s also a sense of dread as well, of not being able to fulfill the expectations of what being a parent means. There’s just a lot of fear, I think. And I guess Exotica is a film that really capitalizes on that. The incredible responsibility of leading someone through a life.

Filmmaker: And then the terrible fear of loss.

Egoyan: There’s almost an obsessive quality to the way in which people try to pass things on – like Thomas smuggling the rare bird eggs into the country. The central trauma of the film, the murder of Francis’ daughter, is one in which that process has been cruelly interrupted.

Filmmaker: Although Exotica is getting a much broader release in the U.S., it’s still dealing with the major themes of your earlier films – sexual fantasy, people’s attempts to communicate, the fractured modern family. Though one element that’s absent in this film is the use of video technology.

Egoyan: What was happening was the video was becoming an item unto itself. It made it too easy to dismiss the films as being little more than formalist exercises, and at the same time it was filtering out the possibility of real emotional identification. And I found that very frustrating. A lot of people felt that the previous films were sort of cold and distant. I never really understood that [reaction] because the films are all about emotion. Even if the emotions are repressed and hidden, there’s still this emotional life to the characters.

Filmmaker: Oh, I agree.

Egoyan: When people associate a certain style or texture with your film, they tend to reduce it to that element. It was becoming too easy to look at my films as being studies of technology and the effect of mediation. Those themes are extremely important to me, but they were being somehow disserviced by the texture of the films themselves. So I thought, wouldn’t it be possible to address those themes without the technology? I think that’s the success of Exotica, because all those issues are still there. But rather than the mediation being through technology or through video, it’s done through more theatrical means, through costumes and things like that.

Filmmaker: I was thinking maybe the erotic context, the setting, is used as a foil to mask the grim realities that are subsequently uncovered – the sense of disconnect that video images were creating, now you’re doing it with the characters’ fantasies.

Egoyan: Yes, exactly. I’d also go a step further and say that I probably have a much greater sense of fantasy when it comes to video images than most people do. I really trip out on those images. I find the texture of video very seductive. It creates in me an almost hallucinatory state which is just not shared by most people, and the way I used video in my previous work to excite that sort of response [in the viewer] never had quite the crossover effect that the sexuality in this movie does.

Filmmaker: Here it’s more direct. A sexual fantasy life is something that everyone shares, whether or not they acknowledge it. Is that the real crossover element?

Egoyan: Yes. I think everyone is fascinated by sex, and by how we can distort our own sexual lives, either through repression or through displacement of our own projections. [Laughs.] That’s certainly what’s happening with Francis. We’re always fascinated to see how other people respond to sexual drive, since we’re all trying to work out our own sexual needs and redefine our sexual needs all the time.

Filmmaker: Francis seems to be addicted to the psychological torment that he’s going through – I don’t want to use the expression "S&M."

Egoyan: There is a masochistic property to his relationship with Christina. When he first engages in this ritual with her in the club, he has no idea where it’s going to lead.

Filmmaker: The hints of incest, you mean?

Egoyan: Yes. He thinks of it as therapeutic, but actually it becomes very painful because now he has to address the incest fantasy of his [lost] daughter, which wasn’t even played out in the film. I think we all need some form of therapy and when that process isn’t institutionalized and supervised in some professional way we get into a very dangerous situation where we create our own. And we don’t quite know when to stop. When Eric [the DJ] throws out Francis for breaking the club rules and touching Christina – on the one hand you could say that’s out of a jealous rage, but it’s also a tremendously compassionate gesture, because he realizes that [the fantasy] is going too far.

Filmmaker: It makes Thomas(Don McKeller), the gay owner of the exotic pet store, seem like the most normal character in the story.

Egoyan: He’s the only person who’s able to have a lot of fun with his sexuality. The degree of flirtation in his character is really welcome given the oppressive quality of a lot of the other sexual activity in the film.

Filmmaker: As you go around to different cities on your PR tour, have you noticed a difference in response from place to place?

Egoyan: Yes, definitely. For instance, the darkest response I’ve had has been from Miami. The first question after the screening was, "How was Christina involved in the murder of Lisa [Francis’s daughter]?" I couldn’t believe that was how they had read the film. They thought that the last scene showed that she was pathologically jealous of her. Again, you can’t make generalizations because that was just what one person thought, but it came out of the absolute blue. What I’ve noticed in the States is that the nature of the interracial relationship is a much more loaded issue here than in other places. People really feel that they want that idea clarified – the film only makes a passing allusion to it – and that it’s too strong a subject to leave at that level.

Filmmaker: What about Thomas’ relationships?

Egoyan: People had less problems with them than the fact that Francis had married a black woman. In Canada it’s not an issue at all. It seemed more of a taboo here [in the States] than showing the gay character, which is surprising.

Filmmaker: Was the West Coast reaction noticeably different from the East Coast reaction?

Egoyan: The response we had in San Francisco is that people were really encouraged by the fact that the gay character is not explained in any way. He doesn’t have to come out. There doesn’t have to be any trauma around his sexuality. People were appreciative of that. It’s really fascinating to me how responses vary...

Filmmaker: With geography.

Egoyan: Yes. And social conditioning, obviously.

Filmmaker: You were on the jury at Sundance. What do you feel about the state of U.S. independent film right now?

Egoyan: Well, it was really sad to see the number of films that will never see the light of day in distribution. I thought the films were going to be made with very modest means. I was overwhelmed by the production values of a lot of these films. It always becomes difficult when you then have to award a prize. Because we all felt very passionately about very different films. Ultimately, the film that you give the award to is one that you all like, but it’s not necessarily the one that you feel most passionate about.

Filmmaker: How’s Arahile [Egoyan’s son]?

Egoyan: He’s fine. He did come to L.A. with us, but there’s no way that this one-day-here, one-day-there, would work out with him.

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