Miramax // 1994 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // December 5th, 1999
How would you forget?
Atom Egoyan delivers a powerful, if strange, film that is, in turn, delivered to DVD rather ambivalently by Disney.
Exotica is a deceptive yet compelling film. One senses watching it that it's director, Atom Egoyan, is on the verge of a huge breakthrough, which was indeed the case at the time. Within just a few years from this film's making, Egoyan took Hollywood and the Oscars by storm with his tensely wonderful The Sweet Hereafter.
Exotica tells a story of several characters. Francis is a tax collector. Thomas owns a pet store. Eric is a DJ at a local strip club called Exotica (hence the film's name) while Christina is a dancer there. Egoyan spends nearly the duration of the film interweaving past and present, unveiling the tightly woven structure that is the fabric of the film, the essence of these characters and the interweaving of their lives together. The story folds back on itself many times, not unlike Pulp Fiction. In that way these two films can be favorably compared, but only in that way.
Unlike Tarantino, Egoyan is fastidious in the way he allows a camera to linger too long without dialogue, or very little of it. Never have I seen a director tell so much with so few spoken words. It makes me want to go back and count the words of dialogue and compare it with some of the tripe spewing from Hollywood. Obviously, this can be a blessing or a curse for an actor, but it is largely handled well in Exotica.
Bruce Greenwood (The Sweet Hereafter, Passenger 57, Wild Orchid) plays Francis the tax auditor who has lost his wife and child, both before their time and in short order. He is plagued by their memory and whiles away his nights with lap dances from the school-girlish Christina. He looks at her and sees his daughter, or so we think. There is clearly more there, and we are left to wonder about his true intentions. Are they sexual? Is he sexually disturbed? Did he murder his daughter? There is a clear bond between he and Christina, as she seems to need him as much as he needs her, for she spends hour upon hour with him, as he seems to soothe her pain as well.
Mia Kirshner (Murder in the First, The Crow: City of Angels, Anna Karenina) plays Christina quite well. She allows us to feel her pain in convincing fashion, yet she retains a sensuality and playfulness uncommon in younger actresses. It is clear she is well immersed in the character of Christina, which must have been a bit of a challenge. She is also responsible for the best scene in the film in my view, when she throws a fit because of something Eric has done.
She and Eric have been lovers in the past, but it is over for her, of not for Eric. Eric is responsible for introducing each dancer to the stage as the DJ at the club, and he always gets a bit over-ambitious during Christina's introduction. It is through this vehicle that Elias Koteas (The Thin Red Line, Gattaca, The Prophecy) who plays Eric allows us to see his longing for Christina. We are also often given a glimpse into the genesis of their relationship as e flash back to the two of them walking together through fields of grass. Koteas has really come into his own of late, particularly, I feel, with his portrayal of Captain Staros in The Thin Red Line.
Alongside this storyline runs another involving Thomas who is played rather enigmatically by Don McKellar (eXistenZ, The Red Violin, The Passion of Ayn Rand). We are given small glimpses into Thomas' life, such as the fact he smuggles rare bird eggs into the country and has weird dating habits. But he is seen as nearly an afterthought, until he is dragged kicking and screaming into a Francis' world. McKellar's Thomas is weird but likeable and his acting here is rather terrific if I do say so myself. Actually the entire cast does a fine job at portraying a full range of emotion (though mostly loneliness, sorrow or pain) with very little dialogue.
Despite the rather good acting and the fact that the story seems well written, something is clearly missing here. We never identify with or feel for these characters. I'm not sure if Exotica needed more dialogue or more time or more story, but I was left wanting for more. The end of the film nicely brings the story and all it's disparate threads together. I'm just not sure I liked the view of the tapestry, as it were.
Disney brings us this film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Unfortunately, that's no excuse for not offering up an anamorphic transfer. It can and, in fact, has been done. New Line's Crash and Damage both had this treatment and looked wonderful. But this is par for the course for Disney up till now. While Disney recently announced they would be bringing more anamorphic transfers to market this disc was clearly in production long before that policy change could be brought to bear.
The image looks fairly decent in the interior of the club, or outside at night. But there are several scenes that take place during the harsh light of day (usually during the flashback sequences) which suffer from softness, grain and a washed out look and feel. The black level looked very good, but there was a bit of edge overenhancement. Thankfully, this was not handled by the same team that butchered Mr. Holland's Opus and Medicine Man, or if it was, they seems to have learned a lot about their equipment between then and now. Exotica does not suffer under the weight of the severe moiré effects noticed in those earlier Disney works.
The soundtrack was decent, if not overpowering. Mostly a dialogue driven movie the soundtrack does a nice job of supplementing the film's moody nature. Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" is used several times and is a welcome addition some of the other styles used in the film such as the haunting India themed pieces by the score's composer Mychael Danna. But, offering an English only soundtrack with no foreign language subtitles leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion.
Exotica will clearly not appeal to everyone. But for those of you who like moody art-house flicks or saw and enjoyed The Sweet Hereafter, I believe this one to be well worth the rental. I enjoyed the film immensely, despite its flaws and look forward to Atom Egoyan's next project Felicia's Journey, which should still be out in theaters and ought to be available on DVD by this time next year barring a terrific Academy Awards run.
The film is acquitted, as are the actors and director. Disney is given merely probation because of their publicly revealed stance to include more anamorphic transfers with their future DVD releases. Otherwise, they'd be locked up.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Film Recommendations