Coal-Colored Glasses

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

Just about everybody in Exotica has two lives, two identities. When Eric the DJ gets behind the turntable and begins spouting freeform erotic observations into the microphone, he's a swaggering carnal oracle, but once he gets off-stage, he's a confused, brutish, defensive bully. His boss, Zoe, acts similarly sexy, confident and all-knowing in front of her customers, but when she's back in the club's offices, watching through one-way mirrors as patrons gawk at her dancers, she's just another struggling businesswoman with bills to pay. And Christina, the schoolgirl-styled dancer, is so psychically divided that it's a wonder she isn't schizophrenic; she seems so preternaturally confident gyrating on-stage that when we see her in flashback as just another sweet-faced teenage girl, the effect is startling and a little bit sad.

Of course, one of the more intriguing ironies of Exotica is that for all the secret-keeping going on, none of Egoyan's characters is fooling anybody. The pretense of living a secret life, or of constructing a false public identity to hide a pained, private one, seems to be undertaken solely for the benefit of the people doing it. Play-acting satisfies their yearnings to control the direction and identity of their own lonely lives, but because everyone else sees right through them, their sense of control is illusory. (Leonard Cohen's song "Everybody Knows," which plays whenever Christina does her bad-schoolgirl dance, serves as the movie's Greek chorus.)

As always with an Egoyan film, there's a tension between the explained and the unexplained, between obviousness and mystery, between control and chaos. Watching Exotica, you're always conscious of the fanatically geometric way Egoyan has laid everything out. By the film's finale, the connections between characters are so definite (and sometimes overly calculated) that he seems to be spelling everything out for you in a Drama 101 fashion. But he actually isn't.

Admittedly, Egoyan is often guilty of tying up so many loose ends that he kills any sense of mystery. At his worst, he's like a chef who cuts your meat for you even when you didn't ask him to. But Egoyan is such an eerily precise and confident director that when his characters explain themselves, the explanation always seems banal, insufficient, even deliberately deceptive. Their declarations of exactly which tragedies made them the lonely people they are always fail to explain them completely; their dark secrets come off as just one part of an infinitely sad puzzle.

Egoyan's films touch an agonizing nerve: they take us into the orbit of people so astoundingly hurt and lost that their faces are often hard for us to look at. Just as his characters frequently display a tendency toward peeping Tomism (evidenced in Exotica's recurring images of heads framed inside windshields and windows, people being watched through one-way mirrors and repeated close-ups of home video images), Egoyan's films place us in the same position. We get to know his people, to learn the details of their most shameful secrets and painful fears, but we're forever aware that we'll never really know them. His characters are mysteries no one is ever going to solve.

Directed by Atom Egoyan. With Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner and Arsinee Khanjian.

Rated R.
104 minutes.

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