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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 10, 1995


Atom Egoyan
Mia Kirshner;
Bruce Greenwood;
Arsinee Khanjian;
Elias Koteas;
Don McKellar
Under 17 restricted

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If one were to travel directly to the center of Atom Egoyan's entrancing, seductive "Exotica," it would be a very short journey. But nothing ever travels in a straight line in Egoyan's universe.

In "Exotica," Egoyan's method of storytelling is circular and elliptical. Initially, the viewer has only the flimsiest information to go on and very little sense of where the film is headed. Most of the action revolves around a strip club called Exotica, an upscale pleasure bubble for well-dressed, well-behaved business types who sit beneath palm fronds and wall-size Rousseau reproductions while dancers take off their clothes to the doleful sighings of Leonard Cohen.

Young Christina (Mia Kirshner), who makes her entrance dressed as a schoolgirl with knee socks and saddle shoes, is one of the club's most popular performers, and mournful tax auditor Francis (Bruce Greenwood) visits her obsessively every night. Exactly what Francis and the childishly dressed Christina do together isn't at all clear. Undeniably, the man is in agony -- as we later learn, over the loss of his family -- and he sees his daughter in Christina. But Christina is also a sex object, and Egoyan allows our imaginations to roam over the various possibilities.

Whatever is going on between them, Eric (Elias Koteas), the club's deejay and Christina's possessive ex-boyfriend, doesn't like it. Further complicating matters, Eric is contracted to impregnate Zoe (Arsinee Khanjian), Exotica's owner, who has a distressing tendency to wear her late mother's wigs and clothes.

Puzzling out how all these various characters tie together -- and what they symbolize -- is the primary appeal of this stylish, intelligent but rather soulless bit of moviemaking. Egoyan's style forces us to approach his films like detectives, piecing together the truth from broken fragments, shifting perspectives and false leads. Where, you think, does the hapless Thomas (Don McKellar), who owns an exotic pet shop and smuggles rare birds' eggs into Canada, fit in? Eventually, we discover that the connections here are more poetic and oblique than we're used to.

But Egoyan seems far more interested in the elements of decor, design, texture and atmosphere than he is in his characters. They seem almost intentionally vapid, and at times their movements are so programmed that they resemble automatons moving crisply, if rather artificially, through carefully rehearsed steps.

To some, this may sound like praise, and certainly it is possible to look at Egoyan's previous "Family Viewing," "Calendar," "The Adjuster" and "Speaking Parts" and see the Armenian Canadian filmmaker as a daring, original voice. Egoyan and cinematographer Paul Sarossy make a powerful appeal to the senses, creating a mysterious, hallucinatory modern environment. Mychael Danna's score, together with the Schubert pieces and the Cohen songs and the Richard Paris/Linda Del Rosario decor, create an atmosphere of decadence and melancholy. But there's a distinct chill at "Exotica's" center, a hauteur. And when you get past the surface diversions, what's left doesn't really amount to much.

Exotica is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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