Exotica (Blu-ray Review)
1994 (September 20, 2022)
Alliance Films/Miramax Films (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1150)
- Film/program category: B
- Video Note: A
- Audio quality: A
- Additional Rank: A
Exotic is the title and main location of the film – a Toronto nightclub designed to create a dreamlike atmosphere where young women dance and talk to male patrons at small, separate tables without breaking the club’s “no touching” rule. The club offers men the opportunity to escape into an environment of sexual fantasy, provided they pay to engage one of the women at a private table.
Above the stage and tables, MC/DJ Eric (Elias Koteas) introduces the dancers with an improvised, sensual crackle that evokes the fantasies each of them are meant to symbolize. Although he seems to be in charge, it is Zoe (Arsinee Kkanjian), a pregnant woman who lives in an apartment behind the club, who is the real boss of the establishment. From a series of one-way windows, she can watch the action in the nightclub.
As the establishment, Exotic is a maze, winding through multiple storylines and revealing the dark secrets of characters who seem to have no connection to each other. It is eventually revealed, however, that they are closely related.
Most dancers perform at various stages of undressing. Christina’s (Mia Kirschner) specialty, however, is dressing up like a real schoolgirl and then showing her naughtiness. She has a regular customer, Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who pays her an hourly rate to “dance” seductively at his table. Although they do not touch, both find that they fulfill a need for each other. Eric was once Christina’s lover. Now he watches jealously as she lingers for hours with Francis.
A second storyline features Thomas (Don McKellar), a petty smuggler of rare birds who tapes their fragile eggs into small containers near his stomach so he can evade Canadian customs. As a front for his contraband, Thomas runs a pet store. He learns, by coincidence, that attending the ballet with a handy extra ticket for sale is a good way to meet attractive young men.
Intermittently we see a line of people spread out and move in unison up a hill and across a field of tall grass. These curious scenes bear no apparent relation to the two stories, but pique our curiosity.
Director Atom Egoyan gradually peels back the layers of the story so that we ultimately find out how these characters are connected. It builds suspense as we try to figure out where the movie is heading. In the flashbacks, the pieces artfully fall into place. Egoyan is adept at creating scenes that seem like something they may not be. For example, we see Francis dropping off young Tracey (Sarah Polley) near a seedy mall and handing her $20 before she gets out of the car, encouraging the viewer to think the worst. This technique lets us guess and maintains a dramatic tension.
Like the club itself, the film taps into our voyeuristic tendencies as we watch the enigmatic characters in fascination. They all have hidden stories motivating strange behaviors, and the appeal of the film is to find out what past events shaped their personalities. Having different sets of characters in seemingly unrelated stories happening simultaneously can be confusing at first but, rather than alienating us, draws us in for more.
Exotic was shot by cinematographer Paul Sarossy on 35mm film with spherical lenses, photochemically finished and presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion’s first Blu-ray film features a new transfer digital created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director scanner from the original camera negative with final approval from director Atom Egoyan. The images are crisp with lovely details in Christina’s work attire, items in the back room of the pet store, graffiti on buildings, and blades of tall grass blowing gently in the wind. A series of one-way mirrors allow individuals to look at customers without being seen. The club has a dreamy look with its spacious interior, faux palm trees, foot-lit stage, and small tables throughout. Bathed in blue light, the club also has a series of moving floodlights that play on different areas. Eric’s DJ station is located above the stage, so he can look down and see every part of the massive room. The production design gives the club a look of a remote tropical oasis meant to shatter men from their inhibitions and immerse themselves in a fantasy world.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio. English subtitles are an available option. The dialogue is clear throughout. Most of the characters speak in a conversational tone, with only one scene in which a character raises his voice in anger. This tends to make us listen carefully. Eric’s spiel as a DJ is amplified by his microphone and creates a slight echo effect in the large club space. Mychael Danna’s score contributes significantly to mood. There is lingering sultry music with a heavy bassline in the club scenes, adding to a sultry atmosphere. The sounds of a beat are “softened” for dramatic effect. A brief airport scene contains ambient sound of bustling crowds, PA announcements, and general crowd noise. Director Egoyan effectively uses silence in scenes where crucial dialogue takes place, ensuring the viewer doesn’t miss key information.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Atom Egoyan and Mychael Danna
- Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley (22:59)
- Calendar (73:23)
- Introduction to the calendar by Atom Egoyan (15:05)
- peep show (7:23)
- By the way (19:06)
- Double ticket Artaud (3:24)
- Cannes, 1994 (22:49)
Director Atom Egoyan and Composer Mychael Danna discuss the unique soundtrack of Exotic. Danna traveled to India to research and record music. The music in club scenes is exciting, seductive and dangerous. Danna talks about how music engages the viewer. They note how the music was carefully planned from the start. The director and composer were “on the same page” in terms of how much music was used and where. In post-production, an editor inserts temporary scores from other films as the film is edited, but they may not be interpolated correctly. The composer is never alone with the film, that is to say that everyone has an opinion and expresses himself on the type of music and its placement. As the work is already progressing, it is difficult to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Both men talk about the personal dramas that bring the characters together. None of the characters have understood how this day affects their lives. Egoyan explains how the script’s scenes “swirl” into each other, the rituals beginning to self-destruct. The film’s budget was relatively small – 1.5 million dollars.
Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley – This conversation was recorded in Toronto in June 2022. They discuss the factors that landed Polley the role of Tracey. Egoyan pleasantly notes how Polley brought her writing to life and how she made certain choices in her performance. Excerpts from the film featuring Polley are interspersed with speech by the two participants. His reaction to his performance has changed over the years. Egoyan also refers to the books Polley wrote.
Calendar – In this 1993 feature film by Atom Egoyan, a Canadian photographer (Egoyan) and his wife (Egoyan’s real-life wife, Arsinee Khanjian), who serves as his translator, travel to Armenia to capture images of former monasteries and churches for a series of calendars. Unfolding in a fragmented structure, blurring time, Calendar is an intense investigation into identity, memory and displacement.
peep show – Atom Egoyan made this film in 1981 while studying at the University of Toronto. A man uses an instant photo booth with bizarre results. The film mixes black and white action shots with transparent color overlay animation to create eerie but captivating images. The experimental nature of the film is its main appeal. The acting and the plot seem secondary.
By the way – In 1991, six of Canada’s most talented directors collaborated on Montreal seen by…, a cinematic tribute to the city of Montreal on the occasion of its 350th anniversary. Egoyan’s contribution, By the wayevokes a Montreal where language seems to exist only as a series of symbols, signals and signs.
Double ticket Artaud – This short film was made in 2007 for the anthology film To each his own cinema, commissioned for the 60th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Two friends, Anna and Nicole, plan to meet at the cinema but somehow end up in different cinemas watching different movies. When they realize their mistake, they start chatting on their smart phones to connect with each other as well as share their cinematic experience in both text and film images. As they watch the movies and film in a movie, their experiences merge, and the events of the two movies merge and begin to comment on each other.
Cannes, 1994 – This is an audio-only excerpt from the film’s Cannes press conference with director Atom Egoyan, actors Bruce Greenwood and Arsinee Khanjian, and producer Camelia Frieberg. Color stills from the film are shown as we listen to a Q&A session.
Brochure – The attached accordion-style booklet contains the essay seduction formula by Jason Wood, cast and credits listings, and digital transfer information.
Exotic takes its time to fill in the backstories so we can understand how a collection of diverse characters connect. It deals with two distinct worlds, the real and the artificial established within the four walls of a gentlemen’s club. He uses eroticism as a metaphor for loneliness, alienation and despair. Although the title suggests X-rated content, the film is actually a well-crafted psychological drama.