Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Film Review: EXOTICA (1994, Atom Egoyan)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 103 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Elias Koteas (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, THE THIN RED LINE, ZODIAC, Cronenberg's CRASH), Victor Garber (ALIAS, MILK), Bruce Greenwood (I'M NOT THERE, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, Abrams' STAR TREK), Mia Kirshner (THE L WORD, THE CROW II), Sarah Polley (GO, THE SWEET HEREAFTER), Arsinée Khanjian (FAT GIRL, CALENDAR), Don McKellar (EXISTENZ, BLINDNESS), music by Mychael Danna (THE SWEET HEREAFTER, CAPOTE), shot by Paul Sarossy (SOLDIER'S GIRL, WICKER MAN remake).
Tag-lines: "In a world of temptation, obsession is the deadliest desire." WHAT

Without any context, a babysitter could be easily confused for a hooker (or vice versa) when she's taking money from an older man in a darkened car. And, in a way, this is the premise of EXOTICA. Context, context, context. A great many of us traverse this life quite presumptuously, making ill-informed judgments (be it by thought, speech, or act) based on observations made in an instant; judging the world based on a grain of sand or a drop of water. In Atom Egoyan's world, the basis of human communication should be a mutual admission: "I don't know what you've been through, nor you, I." The record of a human life cannot be told in an hour, or two, or even a thousand. It's a sum of experiences, traumas, realizations, and fleeting moments that only its bearer can truly appreciate. Yet this truth is ignored again and again until the observer is satisfied enough to 'pin down' his subject, catalogue it, and store it away.

The film is full of these observers; police watching potential criminals at an airport, a man inspecting a rare bird in a cage, spectators at a ballet, patrons at a strip club, management of said club keeping tabs on the patrons. Everyone's getting something out of these exchanges, but what? We're drawn to the uncertainty of mystery almost as much as we're drawn to the finality of judgment. The unknown, the inexplicable, the exotic. An 'exotic' baby grand piano, an 'exotic' bird, a session with an 'exotic' dancer. What are we getting out of this? Something different becomes something familiar. All of these ideas congeal quite beautifully into a character-driven drama that culminates in a finale that is truly cathartic. A lesser artist would allow what follows to spiral into violence, but Egoyan finds a way to reconcile his characters, plot threads, and themes into a denouement that is absolutely staggering, completely appropriate, and one of the best filmic payoffs in years.

Now, after all of that, get a load of the DVD cover Miramax has furnished for this film.

They'd have you believe it's a trite, schoolgirl strippin', darkly voyeuristic, knock-off Eszterhas thrill ride. Given the film's lack of faith in deluded prejudgments, I suppose the cover is the perfect prelude to what comes next. Five stars.

-Sean Gill

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