Let me ask you something gentlemen. What is it that gives a schoolgirl her special innocence? Her sweet fragrance? Fresh flowers? Light spring rain? Or is it her firm young flesh inviting your every caress, enticing you to explore the deepest, most private secrets?
"Exotica" is an Atom Egoyan film which received rave reviews at Cannes a few years back and has been available on video. On the surface, Exotica could be considered one of your typical sexploitation flicks that appeals to the lowest common denominator, the most recent being "Showgirls" and "Striptease". However, upon watching the film, the story of the relationships between the characters is slowly unveiled and a commentary on the value of relationships in the postmodern age is formed. Like the slow striptease of that Christina performs on the stage of Club Exotica, revelations about the characters are shed for the audience: Thomas' smuggling operation, the reason for Christina's loyalty to Francis, the lesbian relationship between Zoe and Christina, the murder of Francis' daughter, and the relationship between Eric and Christina.
Don't you think you owe it to yourself to do something that'll make you feel like you're someone special? You are someone special. Five dollars is all it takes to prove it..
The story revolves around the Club Exotica, a strip club in the middle of an industrial wasteland in Toronto. There is Christina, the stripper who works there; Zoe, the pregnant owner of the bar, and Eric, the DJ. Francis is a Revenue Canada auditor who frequents the club, always asking for Christina, and they play a strange game where Francis relives the memory of his murdered daughter. As the movie develops, he comes to know Thomas, the owner of a pet store who also smuggles exotic animals. Eric becomes jealous of Francis' fascination of Christina, and sets him up to be thrown out of the club. Francis then coerces Thomas to go into the club and spy for him and help him shoot Eric.
The Club Exotica embodies the social condition of postmodernism, a result of capitalism, an existence where people have no emotional connection with others nor values. It is about relationships that people have in an age where morality is irrelevant and such relationships are bartered. An age where people concentrate on the transaction, and not the substance of the relationship. People are classified as debtors or creditors, where the exchange of goods is their only common link. This line of thinking is apparent in the relationships between the characters of Exotica: the dancers at the Exotica dance for the men for $5 a song. The club's owner, Zoe, and the D.J. Eric made a contract for Zoe's baby. Christina, who was paid to baby-sit Francis' daughter when she was young, now is paid to help Francis cope with the loss of his daughter. Francis also pays Tracey, a teenage girl, to practice her piano in his empty house, another method that Francis uses to keep the memory of his daughter alive. Thomas seeks the company of other gay men, with the use of ballet tickets. Ian, a Canada Customs Inspector, himself 'bought' by Thomas at the opera one night, takes illegally smuggled bird eggs from Thomas to guarantee that they'll be able to meet again. Francis, who is auditing Thomas' books for Revenue Canada, coerces Thomas to do a favour for him at the Exotica in exchange for 'not finding' the illegal smuggling operation. As one can see, all the relationships share the same underlying pathology, only the currency differs. None of these relationships have any emotional connection-- no love, no hate. They are merely part of a process, a ritual that is followed. The ritual of exchange is programmed into the minds of the characters that it is what they expect-- a scene that reflects this would be Thomas insisting on paying Christina, even after she told him that it was not necessary. In fact, the only relationships in Exotica with emotional intensity have faded by the beginning of the movie-- Francis' wife and daughter are both dead, and Eric and Christina are estranged lovers, after having met many years prior, searching for the body of Francis' daughter.
Do you ever feel like you need a friend?
Because I just met you... and I feel like telling someone.
These relationships also serve to give the characters their sense of identity. Francis imagines himself as the father figure, watching over his long-dead daughter, in his dealings with Christina and Tracey. Eric relives his youth through his introductions of Christina to the stage.
He comes in here every other night. He has his favourite drink, at his favourite table, with his favourite dancer. Sometimes he has to wait for her and sometimes she's waiting for him. She'll protect him, she's his angel...
Speaking of rituals, there is an emphasis on the rituals of these bartered relationships. Thomas develops a ritual the first time he goes to the opera with the pair of opera tickets from a man who shared a taxi with him. He learns of a way of finding someone to sit beside him. He returns several more times, reinforcing this ritual and a nice juxtaposition arises in the middle of the film. As Francis wanders into the club, looking for Christina, Thomas is wandering at the opera house, looking for a male companion. They both have something in exchange for the company of another person. Not only must one have the currency for the transaction, but one must follow a prescribed protocol. When Francis violates this protocol, by touching Christine on the stomach, he is thrown out of the Club Exotica. There are many rituals which the characters use to give themselves identity or to fill the empty space. They vary in extreme from the normal (small talk between dancer and client, small talk between Eric and Christina in the field), to the truly bizarre. To the casual observer, the more bizarre rituals may seem absurd, but to the characters, these rituals are perfectly rationalized and help them deal with the pain of their loneliness. Francis pays Tracey $20 and hour to practice her music at his empty house to keep the memory of his daughter alive. Francis plays a role-playing game, with Christina as the daughter that must be protected. Thomas shells out money for opera tickets from scalpers to have someone to sit beside at the opera. Tracey's father is disturbed by Francis' strange behaviour and the ritual in which his daughter is involved in, but he pretends not to notice.
You have to ask yourself what brought the person to this point. What was seen in his face, his manner, that channeled him here. You have to convince yourself that this person has something hidden that you have to find. You check his bags, but it's his face, his gestures, that you are really watching...
Finally, Exotica is about how people are shaped by the events around them and how their outward behaviour is manipulated by the ghosts of their past. This is symbolized by the 2-way mirrors, both in the airport and the Club Exotica-- how people perceive the emotional turmoil of others and deal with it subtlety. Francis speaks to Tracey about 'emotional baggage', and how it creates tension between people. He tells her that you can either ignore it, not have friends, or acknowledge the emotional baggage and have friends anyway. By the end of the movie, there is acknowledgment between Eric and Francis of each others' 'emotional baggage' and relationship to Christina.
Just because they're exotic doesn't mean they can't endure extremes.
It is, after all, a jungle out there, isn't it?
So that's my view on Exotica, possibly Atom Egoyan's best film to date. Quite a different film from what my first impressions were. On the other hand, maybe I'm overanalyzing it and it really is another "Showgirls", but I doubt it.