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Coal-Colored Glasses

Atom Egoyan, Canada's poet laureate of cinematic gloom, courts mainstream popularity

Atom Egoyan's vision of a world full of misfits, nomads and wounded souls is so peculiar -- and, frankly, so generally off-putting -- that it's hard to imagine him applying his talents to anything but his own work.

If the Canadian filmmaker directed a Lethal Weapon movie, supercops Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh would cross the homoerotic border they've been tightrope walking for the last eight years and actually become lovers, and the rest of the film would cover how their friends, relatives and fellow police officers react to their affair. It's even more intriguing to consider what a Basic Instinct movie would look like if it passed through Egoyan's hands; there'd probably be no blood, four times as much sex and a hell of a lot of psychotherapy, with a subplot about a porno dealer who sends kiddie pinups to the Pope tossed in for good measure.

And like everything Egoyan touches, these stories would be told in a grinding, rhythmic, dispassionate way -- as seductive case studies in human misery. They'd be made on minuscule budgets, no one would go to see them, and years down the road they'd inspire 12-page think pieces in Film Comment.

Popular interest in Egoyan's films is something altogether new. His latest, Exotica, has done surprisingly well in Canada; now it's getting positive word of mouth in the United States. But in the steadily more prominent world of independent feature filmmaking, in which low-budget imagesmiths win prizes at Sundance and Cannes for making what the Village Voice rightly calls "alternative films that embrace mainstream values," Egoyan still inhabits a maddening, provocative, disturbing world all his own.

Egoyan has dedicated himself to questioning mainstream values, subverting them and exposing their propensity to make the people who embrace them very, very unhappy. He isn't a radical, shock-loving poseur, though. His keen mind investigates grand subjects with deep ambivalence. Even when he's systematically detailing the ways our modern urban culture breeds loners, paranoids, voyeurs, tramps, thieves and killers, he never passes judgment. He's less of a moralist than a geometrician; he's not interested in proclaiming one lifestyle or system of morality superior to another, but in detailing how different ones intersect and collide.

Egoyan isn't one of those modern artists whose failure to win mainstream popularity is a puzzle. His films are an acquired taste -- a harsh, bitter, cold acquired taste. They typically concern a group of troubled characters living in a large Canadian city, grappling with demons of fear and repression, struggling to find happiness in a real world that's nothing like the romantic movies, novels and pop music they were weaned on, and discovering by the narrative's end they're all linked in coincidental ways they never would have guessed.

Exotica is no exception. One of Egoyan's grand themes is alienation. He examines the term in its textbook sense: the idea that you're living a life outside of yourself, and yearning to be inside of something -- your society, your family, your own personality. Accordingly, the characters in Exotica have all latched onto an identity they hope will make them comfortable and happy, but that identity is a false, brittle, frail one.

No one is more aware of this than Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a tax auditor who lost his wife and child in one horrible year and has been living in a fugue state ever since. By day, he catches people in financial lies; by night, he lives a lie of his own, visiting Exotica, a local exotic dance club, and spending time and money with a young performer named Christina (Mia Kirshner), whose routine consists of trotting out on-stage in the uniform of a Catholic schoolgirl, performing a perky number that looks suspiciously like a cheerleading routine and removing her garments one by one. Francis seems to know Christina very well, but the filmmaker holds off on revealing the details of their relationship. All we know is that these two troubled souls have a deep and very private bond.

The DJ at the club, the longhaired, hard-living Eric (Elias Koteas, a dark-eyed, intense actor who's a ringer for the young Robert De Niro), also has a bond with Christina -- and once again, Egoyan keeps its nature a mystery. Eric is jealous of the attention Christina pays to the tax auditor (she seems to take him much more seriously -- and dance for him much more enthusiastically -- than she does the club's other patrons) and complains to the club's owner, the pregnant worrywart Zoe (the director's wife and favorite actress, Arsinee Khanjian), but she's got problems of her own. Since Zoe's mother, who founded the club, died recently, Zoe has been struggling to do her memory justice, donning the late woman's cartoon-whorehouse-madam dresses and wigs and trying to conduct the club's business (and her own life) as mother would have preferred.

Perhaps the quirkiest and most fascinating person in the movie -- and one of Egoyan's finest creations as a dramatist -- is a meek pet store owner named Thomas (Don MacKellar). A shy and quiet gay man, Thomas has recently taken an interest in scalping opera tickets, which enables him to meet and flirt with hunky young concertgoers and pretend he's more confident and sexually experienced than he really is. There's another side of him, too -- a side Francis the tax auditor quickly discovers: Thomas is running a smuggling business, sneaking exotic animals through customs and selling them for astronomical sums of money.

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