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; everyones attracted to her. The film proceeds in reverse, in thriller-like mode, and gradually the intertwined relationships between the films other characters are stealthily unraveled in the course of the films denouement.
Filmmaker: How crucial to your story was the setting of Exotica in a strip club?
Egoyan: If you look at other societies, theyve always been able to embrace the idea of a bacchanal in some way. Its 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. Youre allowed to play out a fantasy life in a public setting. I think its an interesting environment from that point of view.
Filmmaker: You werent 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 didnt really think about it too much, the audience would feel comfortable... Well, not comfortable, that wasnt 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 didnt 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, its interesting you should say that because the idea of an aquarium figured very prominently in the film.
Filmmaker: Oh yes, theres 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 its not, it becomes overgrown and goes off in all sorts of directions you dont 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 thats great.
Filmmaker: So, you were able to override the tawdry aspects of the strip club. If people are disturbed by it, its certainly not because of the décor, its because of whats going on there table dancing. Could you talk about Zoes attraction to Christina?
Egoyan: So much of the clichéd view of those clubs is that theyre run by men, [so] I thought it would be interesting to reverse [the genders] and have the club run by a woman whos taking advantage of the situation. Though shes also confused about it, shes trying to assert her own identity and exert control over the club. But shes inherited the club from her mother whos still a powerful influence on her. Shes always trying on her mothers old wigs and costumes... shes 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 thats very much part of it, but theres also a sense of dread as well, of not being able to fulfill the expectations of what being a parent means. Theres 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: Theres 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., its still dealing with the major themes of your earlier films sexual fantasy, peoples attempts to communicate, the fractured modern family. Though one element thats 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, theres 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, wouldnt it be possible to address those themes without the technology? I think thats the success of Exotica, because all those issues are still there. But rather than the mediation being through technology or through video, its 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 youre doing it with the characters fantasies.
Egoyan: Yes, exactly. Id 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 its 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.] Thats certainly whats happening with Francis. Were always fascinated to see how other people respond to sexual drive, since were 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 hes going through I dont 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 its 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 wasnt even played out in the film. I think we all need some form of therapy and when that process isnt institutionalized and supervised in some professional way we get into a very dangerous situation where we create our own. And we dont 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 thats out of a jealous rage, but its 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: Hes the only person whos 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 Ive had has been from Miami. The first question after the screening was, "How was Christina involved in the murder of Lisa [Franciss daughter]?" I couldnt 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 cant make generalizations because that was just what one person thought, but it came out of the absolute blue. What Ive 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 its 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 its 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 doesnt have to come out. There doesnt have to be any trauma around his sexuality. People were appreciative of that. Its 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 its not necessarily the one that you feel most passionate about.
Filmmaker: Hows Arahile [Egoyans son]?
Egoyan: Hes fine. He did come to L.A. with us, but theres no way that this one-day-here, one-day-there, would work out with him.