Provocative, odd 'Exotica' a haunting trip

April 19, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Some movies gallop, some churn, some stutterstep, some don't even make it to the end of the road. The movies of the Canadian director Atom Egoyan, however, can be said to glide.

Egoyan, whose latest film, "Exotica," opens today at the Senator, swoops over the pristine surface of things, ever vivid, ever provocative, but never quite clear. He is a sublime craftsman whose movies always boast the highest professional production values but whose stories always seem set in a dreamy netherzone which, wherever it's located, sure ain't on York Road, in Bawlmer, Murlyn.

Though he's essentially an art-house director and a highly refined and acquired taste, Egoyan has attracted major media ++ attention this time, because the film is, even by his standards, highly sexually charged. (A colleague kept asking when "Erotica" would get here; she wasn't far wrong.)

It takes place around a strip bar and follows the interconnected ++ paths of several people: the owner, her No. 1 guy, one of the dancers (who is extremely and uncomfortably young), and a melancholy customer who is still in mourning for his murdered daughter and expresses this pain by his affection for the dancer.

Everything about the movie is superb -- particularly the performances -- except for this one thing: It seems, somehow, to lack a center, that is, a root connection in reality. It's set nowhere except in Egoyan's imagination, which is possibly not the healthiest of spots.

Take the club, for example: a complete fantasy nurtured on cartoons from men's magazines of the '50s. It's far from the squalid fleshpots of The Block with their forlorn, young junky-hooker-dancers who look like they need a hug and a cup of nTC soup, and are about as erotic as atrocity photography; rather, it's a posh, velvety underground, and the dancers are sleek and beautiful enough for Vogue, to say nothing of Penthouse.

In this venue, Francis (Bruce Greenwood, his boyish handsomeness hidden under a tragic beard) comes each night, to pay a few bucks so that the beautiful young Christina (Mia Kirshner) will dance for him. Christina's thing: She seductively sheds the uniform of a Catholic schoolgirl to reveal a voluptuous adult body. To make it kinkier: She is a schoolmate of Francis' murdered daughter, who wore the same uniform.

The connections continue in that same precious, highly ironic way: The master of ceremonies is young Eric (De Niro look-alike Elias Koteas), who also has a thing for Christina, but who was the one who found the dead body of the daughter as part of a volunteer search force. He watches with an odd mesh of jealous anger and brokenhearted compassion as poor Francis expresses whatever rage and fear and pain drives him in the touchless exchange with the dancer.

There's something godlike in Eric: He looks down from on high, tormented by the need to intercede in human affairs but unable to do so for the longest time.

And there's another whole odd subplot. In his day job, Francis is a government tax auditor. One of his subjects is a young, gay pet store owner named Thomas (Don McKellar), who is secretly the smuggler of exotic bird eggs. Francis uses leverage over Thomas to get him to perform an errand at the club Exotica, from which he's finally been banished.

One is mightily tempted to dismiss poor "Exotica" as soft-core porn hiding under a disguise of artistic pretension, but it nevertheless provokes and lingers as much as it titillates.

There's something oddly compelling and memorable here: It's as if Egoyan has somehow penetrated some mythic structure. This film doesn't work as "story," certainly not as "feature movie," but feels in some peculiar and giddy sense like a gondola trip through the collective unconscious.

All the time, you're thinking: Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

'EXOTICA'

Starring Bruce Greenwood and Mia Kirshner

Directed by Atom Egoyan

Released by Miramax

Rated R (sexual imagery and themes)

** 1/2

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