PRINT March 1995


Atom Egoyan

IT IS A YOUNG stripper in schoolgirl drag who ushers us into Atom Egoyan’s heart of darkness, Exotica. In the verdant sleaziness of an upscale titty bar, rituals bleed their meanings as lives intersect and then collide. At the vortex of this emotional cyclone is Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a tax auditor, still reeling from the deaths of his wife and daughter, who transforms his mourning into the disturbing psychological games that he plays with an exotic table-dancer named Christina (Mia Kirshner). Recovering from her own history of abuse, Christina is struggling to leave behind her ex-boyfriend, Eric (Elias Koteas), the club’s tortured MC. Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), the club’s owner, is pregnant by Eric. Thomas (Don McKellar), a pet-store owner who actually makes his money smuggling exotic animals, plays his own complicated games, picking up young black men with the promise of front-row seats at the opera. When Thomas is drawn into Francis’ orbit, he begins to understand the more grievous innuendos of the exotic.

Born in Cairo to Armenian parents in 1960, Egoyan grew up in Canada and began his filmmaking at the University of Toronto. His films, from Next of Kin (1985) to the more recent Calendar (1993), speak to the need to go beyond family and identity in forging kinship. Exotica, winner of last year’s International Critics’ Prize at Cannes, opens nationally in April, around the time Egoyan will be hailed with a retrospective of his work at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

At the Thessaloníki Film Festival in Greece, Egoyan talks about the place where our own memories become exotic—that place where we become removed from the motivations behind our behavior, that place called denial. Throughout the intricate narrative web of Exotica, the director works against that amnesia, shifting tenses in a way that deepens our understanding of memory and history beyond the cinematic flashback. While Egoyan speaks about the film’s “resolution,” “redemption” is probably a more accurate description of the moments that end the film—moments that bring home to us the depth and the violent, transformative power of love.

Lawrence Chua

LAWRENCE CHUA: In the months since I’ve seen Exotica, I’ve noticed that I’ve been carrying around feelings that some of the images provoked in me, feelings integral to the ideas the film expressed. What was your own emotional relationship to the narrative?

ATOM EGOYAN: My original inspiration was from this idea of a baby-sitter, and the ritual of driving a baby-sitter home. I was attracted to the idea of the impossibility of silence. As a male driver driving home a teenage woman, it’s impossible to be silent in a car because it becomes very tense. You have to talk, but then given the fact that you have to talk, what do you talk about? Once you create that environment, you just infuse it with a lot of your own personal history. The real motor of the story for me was a young woman I knew during my adolescence. It later turned out that she was in a very abusive situation and was never able to deal with that. It had a very strong effect on me, and on my perception of what sexual behavior was driven by. In her personality, I saw a lot of need to make a parody of her own sexuality in order to deal with what she was going through at home. This idea of people acting out roles or creating situations where they twist their behavior into something they use as a way of coping with pain was at the emotional heart of Exotica.

LC: The characters in Exotica are all caught up in mythmaking as a way to deal with their pain.

AE: I’m fascinated by characters who don’t have access to or contact with a professional, sanctioned form of therapy and therefore have to create their own. To an extent, all my films deal with people who are involved in their own process of therapy—with all its accompanying dangers. There’s no one there to regulate what track you’re on, to know if it’s working or not. In Exotica you clearly have a situation that the characters understand as therapeutic but in fact is very dangerous.

LC: Historically, the idea of the “exotic” has been a justification for conquest and exploitation. Confronted with Christina’s schoolgirl striptease, her “wholesome” appearance at first seems incongruent to the traditional colonialist fantasy that the set where she’s dancing is based on: all green jungles and funky music.

AE: I think that image of Christina is quite transgressive and does have exotic associations for a more traditional middle-class mentality, like Francis. What has been exoticized is the idea of a sexuality that is taboo, or inaccessible. It is taking place in this very colonial setting, this jungle atmosphere; there’s this association to other cultures that are heard through music or through other elements in the film. The idea of people going to a place and doing things that they might not normally be able to do in their homes is very important in the film.

LC: Christina’s client, Francis, certainly embodies that drive. But he also projects this fantasy of her as a part of his “home” life, a substitute for his lost daughter.

AE: The idea of him losing his daughter and the idea of how a family broke down were in the very early drafts of the script. I loved the idea that his separation from his family was reinforced by his having a wife of color. You have a sense, a suspicion, of the nature of his attraction in the first place, of his sowing the seeds of that alienation through the very reason by which that relationship was formed. It’s very salient in the film. It’s not really drawn out, but I think there is that sense that he consciously transported his wife into his culture and created this home that she never entirely identified with.

LC: You make use of television and video in all your films. How did you intend the video footage of Francis’ wife and child to operate in Exotica?

AE: The video image in Exotica is perhaps more literal than it has been in other movies: it’s obviously a moment in Francis’ home video that has become fetishized and taken out of context. All through the film we see that moment of the mother holding up her hand to protect the girl from the father’s gaze. It’s a very threatening gesture—it seems like something in the middle of a violent or potentially violent encounter. At the end of the film we realize that in fact it’s just a very casual and humorous moment within the family. Francis has isolated that moment, and it has come to represent what he now feels toward his daughter. One of the really dangerous things about recorded evidence of our behavior is that it can become exoticized as well. An image can seem to be completely fixed when in fact it is something that can be psychologically manipulated. There’s nothing simple about the motivation for wanting to take an image of somebody. Our photographic industries have led us to believe that there’s nothing more natural than wanting to make a record of people we love; in fact our need to document is very complex. It’s a need to suspend time, a need to react against what is inevitable: the passage of time.

LC: You’ve said that you wanted to structure the film like a striptease. How did you conceive of the screenplay?

AE: Well, it’s not as one might think, a situation where you write a clear narrative and then break it up. The evolution of my script is organic. It has its inherent problems, which is that you have to really give yourself time to develop from draft to draft. The last scene, or the last revelations, in the film were not there in the first draft. They came as a result of needing to find resolution. It’s intensely personal. But, knowing what the emotional issues were for me in the film, I had to make sure I wasn’t satisfied with what was going on at a cinematic level. There had to be levels of personal history that were being properly revealed. I feel very responsible to that, to how these characters are situated and the telling of their stories. It’s a task I don’t take lightly. I think once you embark on the representation and depiction of human beings who are in a very problematic situation, you have to apply yourself to who these people are and what they need to tell. In that way, when it comes to my definition of dramatic characters, as untraditional as my techniques may seem, my motivations are quite classical in terms of what I want to reveal about the characters, my desire to find a catharsis or some sense of resolution. It’s just that the means by which these things happen is unorthodox.

LC: Sound registers much more consciously in Exotica than in many of your earlier films. You’ve talked of how the effort to understand the impossibility of silence was important to you in the early stages of writing the screenplay.

AE: It’s a bold soundtrack because it’s quite abstract. There are parts where the sounds become completely unrealistic, like the jungle sounds in the club during the day and certainly Francis’ drive home with Tracey [Sarah Polley] at night; there’s a very stylized sound that forces the viewer’s attitude to what is going on. In my other films, people were reduced to silence, or found a comfort in silence. In this film, because the crisis is more focused on the characters themselves, because they are able to articulate what the source of their pain is, they are somehow tortured by silence. They need to be able to talk about what they’re going through, but they haven’t found the right person, or they’ve tried to pay people to listen to them, but that’s never quite the same either.

LC: The idea of paying people for intimacy informs nearly all the relationships in Exotica. Thomas, the exotic-pet smuggler, invents a ritual where he takes money from black men and then returns it to them.

AE: Thomas’ projection is more flirtatious and less loaded or problematic for me than what Francis and his brother are going through. In Thomas’ liaisons there’s a consensual understanding of image and of identity. In a club setting like Exotica, there seems to be something oppressive or loaded about the exchanges. And certainly, in terms of a history of white relationships with black culture, there’s something more, to use your word, “colonial” about their approach. With Thomas I wanted to show the other side of that—that there’s also the possibility of pleasure to be exchanged in a transfer of identity, or a projection of it. I wanted Thomas to show a more casual or “natural,” if it’s possible to use that word, exchange. The way money was exchanged suggests Thomas has control of the contradictions inherent in his projections.

LC: It struck me how many communities in our society are constituted around addiction and need. In Exotica, all these different lives collide in a strip club. How did you conceive of that space?

AE: You’re asking me to define the difference between seduction and addiction. It’s a very loaded construct. I thought of the club as being very seductive, and of there being something in that space that seduced people and brought them back. I hadn’t thought of it as being addictive, but in fact that’s what it becomes. Francis is addicted to this ritual with Christina. And Thomas is probably addicted to the ritual of taking people to the opera. When your image of yourself is so fragile, part of what you think you don’t have in your own identity comes from what someone else projects back to you. So you lose control over that projection of yourself, which is why there’s such a manic sense of wanting to preserve control over the details of things. You’ve lost sight of the larger picture. In a way, you could also argue that Francis has become addicted to the pain he feels—to that sense of mourning. Freudian psychoanalysts have a term called “faulty mourning,” where you’re mourning in a way that only accentuates the sense of loss as opposed to dealing with it. The focus of Francis’ and Eric’s loss is Christina, who, herself, has lost her innocence, her youth. These three are incapable of actually giving because they’re so caught up in their own trauma.

Yet transgressions are made. The film is about what human beings have to do to make themselves better, about people finding someone else who provides them with a sense of comfort—and about how that can become misplaced. If it’s not regulated, it can become dangerous. “Everybody Knows,” the Leonard Cohen song that comes up throughout Exotica, is so great to me because it speaks to the whole idea of collective knowledge. In fact everybody doesn’t completely know what they think they know, including the viewer. In the end, the connection that these people have with each other is beyond their wildest understanding.

Lawrence Chua is a writer living in New York City and Miami Beach. He is the managing editor of Bomb magazine and a founding member of the broadcast collective Radio Bandung.