Forgotten Gem: Exotica – Ballad of the sad strip joint

Exotica – 1994

Written and Directed by Atom Egoyan
Starring  Mia Kirshner, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Sarah Polley, Victor Garber, Arsinée Khanjian, Don McKellar

“Love

The made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams,
They made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams.
But when they were finished there was nothing to say,
‘Cause mostly they made love from ten miles away.”  Donald and Lydia, by John Prine

The amount of time I have spent pondering stripping establishments could fill a thimble.  I have been there as a customer twice in my life, and then other times when building and maintaining sun tanning beds. They are sad and pathetic places, no matter how they look.  People going there and people working there have something missing in their lives.  Egoyan takes this environment and creates an even sadder circle of life, centered around desperation and loss.

Auditor Francis (Greenwood), the stripper he frequents, Christina (Kirshner), the DJ at club Exotica who waxes pathetically, Eric (Koteas) and those that intersect with them create a web where every twitch is felt by the others.  Suffice to say the connections are somewhat obvious, but each are intricately woven.  Egoyan’s use of pace borders on iceberg slow, but he makes up for it with interesting actors in extreme circumstances.

An owner of an exotic pet store is given tickets to the opera after sharing a cab after a trip from another country that he is smuggling animals from.  He goes to the show, gives one ticket to another person.  Before long, he makes a habit of buying tickets and giving the extra ticket to other men.  Entering his world through a surprise audit, is Francis.

Francis, meanwhile, is hiring Tracey (Polley) the daughter of his friend, Victor (Garber) every other day to babysit…the house.  During this time, he goes to the club, and watches Christina.  Meanwhile Eric, spouting clichés over the air of the dimly lit club,  jealous of the perceived relationship he thinks he is witnessing.  It doesn’t help that Eric has a relationship with their boss Zoe (Khanjian), and Zoe is now pregnant with their child.  Each night, after his time at the club, Francis drives Tracey back to her home, discussing things in a very genuine, but straight up way.

The common thread with each of these characters is that no one is with the person they are closest to.  Not only does everyone have their own agenda, they are totally enamored with the ideas of the others, but are not at all interested in the reality.  There is a reason for this, of course.  Their realities messed up, sometimes due to their actions, sometimes not.

Egoyan’s touch, as usual, is deft.  He lets the characters wallow in their discomfort, sometimes a bit long, but it rings true.  All of the actors are near the top of their game here, except Khanjian and Koteas, who both seem a little raw.  Even so, Koteas, at least will develop into quite the character actor.  Extremely polished even at her age is Sarah Polley, already well on her way to becoming one of the best actors around.  Bruce Greenwood is one of the most underrated actors of his time.  Why he hasn’t won an award by now, I have no idea.

The soundtrack is pretty dated, excepting the stirring version of Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” which I originally heard in Pump Up The Volume and would not mind hearing in every movie.

As intricately woven as his web of characters have the definite spark of reality, there is something that misses in the end, if only slightly. My mind’s eye wonders if, perhaps, Egoyan overshot the mark with his estimation of the potential life of the common customer of a stripper.   His Francis is a lot more complex than my understanding of them would have me believe.  I am closer to thinking the common intellectual, even in a hurting state, would not be drawn to the half nude gyrations of someone half his age.  In the words of Dennis Miller, “But that’s just me.  I’m a different breed of cat.”

(**** out of *****)

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