Exotica (Blu-ray Review)
Release Date(s)1994 (September 20, 2022)
Studio(s)Alliance Films/Miramax Films (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1150)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Exotica is the title and the film’s primary location—a Toronto nightclub designed to create a dreamlike atmosphere where young women dance for and talk to male clients at small, separate tables without breaking the club rule of “No touching.” The club offers men an 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 the tables, MC/DJ Eric (Elias Koteas) introduces the dancers with improvised, sensual patter that conjures the fantasies each of them is intended to symbolize. Though he seems in charge, it’s Zoe (Arsinee Kkanjian), a pregnant woman who lives in an apartment behind the club, who’s the actual boss of the establishment. From a series of one-way windows, she’s able to survey the action in the nightclub.
Like the establishment, Exotica is a labyrinth, winding through several storylines and uncovering the dark secrets of characters who seem to have no connection with one another. It’s ultimately revealed, however, that they are closely bound together.
Most of the dancers perform in various stages of undress. The specialty of Christina (Mia Kirschner), however, is being dressed like a proper schoolgirl and then flashing her naughtiness. She has a regular client, Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who pays her an hourly rate to “dance” seductively at his table. Though they don’t touch, both find that they meet a need in each other. Eric was once Christina’s lover. Now he watches jealously as she lingers for hours with Francis.
A second storyline introduces Thomas (Don McKellar), a small-time smuggler of rare birds who tapes their fragile eggs in small containers close to his belly so he can elude Canadian Customs. As a front for his smuggling, Thomas runs a pet shop. He learns, coincidentally, that attending the ballet with a convenient extra ticket to sell is a good way to meet cute young men.
Intermittently, we see a line of people spread out and moving in unison over a hill and through a field of high grass. These curious scenes have no apparent relation to the two stories, yet pique our curiosity.
Director Atom Egoyan gradually peels back layers of the story so that we eventually discover how these characters are connected. This creates suspense as we try to figure where the film is heading. In flashbacks, the pieces fall artfully into place. Egoyan is adept at creating scenes that appear to be something they may not be. For instance, we see Francis drop off young Tracey (Sarah Polley) near a seedy strip mall and hand her $20 before she gets out of the car, encouraging the viewer to think the worst. This technique keeps us guessing, and sustains dramatic tension.
Like the club itself, the film draws upon our voyeuristic tendencies as we watch the enigmatic characters with fascination. They all have hidden backstories motivating strange behaviors, and the appeal of the film is finding out what past events formed their personalities. Having different sets of characters in seemingly unrelated stories unfold simultaneously can be confusing at first but, rather than alienating us, draws us in to learn more.
Exotica was shot by director of photography Paul Sarossy on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Criterion’s Blu-ray debut of the film features a new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director scanner from the original camera negative with final approval by director Atom Egoyan. Images are sharp with nice detail in Christina’s work outfit, items in the back room of the pet store, graffiti on buildings, and blades of high grass gently blowing in the wind. A series of one-way mirrors allows individuals to look at customers unseen. The club has a dreamy look with its spacious interior, false palm trees, footlight-lit stage, and small tables throughout. Bathed in blue light, the club also has a series of moving spotlights that play upon different areas. Eric’s DJ station is high above the stage, so that he can look down and see every part of the massive room. Production design gives the club a faraway, tropical oasis look intended to have men drop 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. Dialogue is clear throughout. Most of the characters speak in conversational tones, with only one scene in which a character raises his voice in anger. This tends to draw us in to listen carefully. Eric’s spiels as a DJ are amplified by his microphone and create a slight echo effect in the large club space. Mychael Danna’s score contributes significantly to mood. There’s persistent sultry music with a heavy bass line in the club scenes, adding to a sensual atmosphere. The sounds of a beating are “sweetened” for dramatic effect. A brief airport scene contains ambient sound of crowds bustling about, PA announcements, and general crowd noise. Director Egoyan uses silence effectively in scenes in which crucial dialogue takes place, assuring that 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 Calendar by Atom Egoyan (15:05)
- Peep Show (7:23)
- En passant (19:06)
- Artaud Double Bill (3:24)
- Cannes, 1994 (22:49)
Director Atom Egoyan and composer Mychael Danna discuss the unique soundtrack of Exotica. Danna traveled to India to research and record music. The music in the club scenes is exciting, seductive, and dangerous. Danna talks about how the music engages the viewer. They note how music was carefully planned from the beginning. Both director and composer were “on the same page” in terms of how much music is used and where. In post-production, an editor will put in temporary scores from other films as the film is being cut, but it may not be interpolated correctly. The composer is never alone with the film, meaning everyone has an opinion and expresses his thoughts about the type of music and its placement. With work already progressing, it’s difficult to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. The two men speak about the personal tragedies that bring characters together. None of the characters have absorbed how this day ripples through their lives. Egoyan discusses how the script’s scenes “swirl” into one another, with rituals beginning to self-destruct. The budget for the film was comparatively small—$1.5 million.
Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley – This conversation was recorded in Toronto in June, 2022. They discuss the factors that won Polley the role of Tracey. Egoyan pleasantly notes how Polley brought his writing to life and how she made certain choices in her performance. Clips from the film featuring Polley are interspersed with the two participants speaking. Her reaction to her performance has changed over the years. Egoyan also refers to the books Polley has written.
Calendar – In this 1993 feature 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 ancient monasteries and churches for a calendar series. Unfolding in a fragmented, time-scrambling structure, Calendar is an intense investigation of identity, memory, and displacement.
Peep Show – Atom Egoyan made this film in 1981 during his studies at the University of Toronto. A man uses an instant photo booth with bizarre results. The film mixes action black-and-white shots with transparent color layering animation to create strange but captivating images. The film’s experimental nature is its main attraction. Acting and plot seem secondary.
En passant – In 1991, six of Canada’s most talented directors collaborated on Montreal vu par..., a cinematic tribute to the city of Montreal on the occasion of its 350th birthday. Egoyan’s contribution, En passant, conjures a Montreal where language seems to exist only as a series of symbols, signals, and signs.
Artaud Double Bill – This short was made in 2007 for the anthology film Chacun son cinema, commissioned for the 60th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Two friends, Anna and Nicole, plan to meet each other at the movies but somehow end up in different theaters watching different films. As they realize their mistake, they begin chatting on their smart phones to connect to each other as well as to share their film experience in both text and images from the films. As they watch the films, and film within a film, and their experiences merge, and the events in both films merge and begin to comment on each other.
Cannes, 1994 – This is an audio-only excerpt from the film’s press conference in Cannes 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.
Booklet – The enclosed accordion-style booklet contains the essay Formula for Seduction by Jason Wood, cast and credits lists, and information about the digital transfer.
Exotica takes its time filling in backstories so that we can figure out how a collection of diverse characters connect. It deals with two distinct worlds, the real one and the artificial one established within the four walls of a gentlemen’s club. It employs eroticism as a metaphor for loneliness, alienation, and desperation. Though the title suggests X-rated content, the film is actually a well-crafted psychological drama.
- Dennis Seuling