Exotica Movie Review: "What is It About a Schoolgirl?"

Subtle, understated dealings with grief in a club full of exotic dancers is a little unexpected.
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Exotica (1994), a Canadian contemporary of Pulp Fiction, written and directed by Atom Egoyan, revolves around the nightclub that gives the movie its title. It's told in a disjointed chronological order, which means by the time the viewer is invited into the action, everything has already happened. It's all very Pinteresque. At the Exotica the lovely young lady Christina (Mia Kirshner) is dancing to Leonard Cohen's “Everybody Knows” wearing a Catholic schoolgirl uniform. The club's DJ Eric (Elias Koteas) gives her introduction, often repeating the question, “What is it about a schoolgirl?”

exotica

The club itself is strangely not as sleazy as it could be. This is high-end naked girl-ogling, more of a gentleman's club than a den of iniquity. The one rule written in stone is that the patrons can't touch the girls. One of Christina's regular clients is Francis (Bruce Greenwood). He is actually the center of this whole tale and, despite the setting, this is a story of grief and loss and the loss of innocence. There is a strange bond between Francis and Christina, and there is history between Christina and Eric. There is something like a protective possessiveness from Eric when it comes to this particular dancer, even if he's not involved with her. He is, however, the father of the child the club's owner Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian) is very blatantly carrying.

Francis also has a young girl, Tracy (Sarah Polley) who “baby-sits” for him, meaning she uses his house while he is at the club to practice her flute-playing. They have gentle conversations in the car when he drives her home on the theme of friendship and life in general. Being a hardened cynic, I keep expecting this to take on some kind of Lolita-aspect, but it never really does and the reasons why aren't revealed until the very end of the movie. The whole thing is strangely chaste, despite the central stage it plays out on, and the characters are connected in ways you don't expect at first.

Francis works as an auditor and that's where he comes in contact with the pet-store owner Thomas (Don McKellar) who occasionally trawls the opera for male company. Again, the affairs of the heart lead to some strange venues. Francis discovers some discrepancies in Thomas’ books and when Francis gets banned from the club for putting hands on Christina, an act manipulated into happening by Eric, Francis uses his knowledge of the pet stores illegal imports to coerce Thomas into acting as his proxy at the club. He sends him in with a wire to talk to Christina.

There is something deeply unhealthy about the way Francis goes about his everyday life. He is living with the ghosts of his past, but none of this makes sense until we get the whole story. 

It is in the thwarting of expectations that the brilliance of Egoyan's work shines. Rather than making this cheap and sleazy, we are shown the emotional undercurrents of different basic human needs that are less about sexual gratification than they are about empathy and compassion. There is obsession and grief and need, but none of those things are easily assuaged or purged. The characters are understated and the even if the story is actually pretty straightforward once the viewer has all the pieces, the way it is told is haunting.

Francis keeps repeating the line “How could anyone hurt you?” to Christina while she dances for him, the very picture of corrupted innocence in her unbuttoned schoolgirl uniform, her hips in a swivel. It's unsettling and still so very human that you wonder what is going on with these two. Christina, for her part, keeps reassuring him that she's safe, he'll keep her safe. They're trapped in a pattern and it takes Eric's intervention to get Francis out of the ritual he's stuck in.

With a movie like this one it's hard not to end up thinking about the “eye of the beholder”, the camera-gaze, the detachment of looking without touching. Inevitably it becomes a metaphor of cinema as surrogate intimacy and voyeurism. At the central node we find, not sex, but death, Thanatos and Eros doing their interminable dance. Or you can just ogle the girls, depending on where your philosophical bent leads you. 

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