If Atom Egoyan’s Exotica wasn’t quite as successful as it might have been, it probably has something to do with the deceptive advertising campaign Miramax Films used when it opened. I still remember the first time I became aware of this movie, from a poster in the window of a video rental store near the New Jersey Transit Station in Linden New Jersey. The image of a 19-year-old Mia Kirsher writhing on the floor of Toronto strip club in a Catholic schoolgirl dress blended in with the seedy neighborhood. There’s still a topless bar down the street. Exotica is not a film about the sex industry. It’s not even particularly sexy. But since deception and misdirection are key to its narrative structure, then perhaps Mirimax’s posters, while costing the film money at the box office, are appropriate after all.
Set in what most of the critics label an “upscale” strip club — it’s actually a fairly seedy place on the outskirts of Toronto — Exotica follows a group of people who seem to have no connection to one another. There’s the accountant for Revenue Canada, his teenage babysitter, a young exotic dancer, the strip club’s owner, a very pregnant woman in her 30s, a pet shop owner, and a disc jockey who introduces the “girls” before they come on stage. By showing us people who not only have more connections to one another than they normally let on, but more connections to one another than they normally let on to one another, Exotica captures the spiritual sickness of neoliberal North America. Perhaps the key scene in the film takes place as Francis Brown, the account for Revenue Canada, a man in his late 30s who goes to Exotica every night to get a laptop from Mia Kirshner’s Christina, is driving his babysitter Tracy home. What is their relation to each other? Francis Brown has none of the creepy pedo vibe of a Woody Allen but he is a middle-aged man alone in a car with a 15-old-girl in the seedy part of Toronto. He gives her money. What is this “baby sitting” really all about? Does he pay to consummate the fantasy he started began in the strip club.
It’s actually much stranger. Occam’s Razor never quite works in Exotica. When you hear hoof beats, sometimes it isn’t a horse. Sometimes it’s a zebra. Tracy isn’t a child prostitute pretending to be a babysitter. That would make sense. Instead, she’s a babysitter for a dead girl, Francis’s murdered daughter. Francis, who had been accused of the murder before he was cleared, goes to Exotica, not to hit on teenagers, but to exercise the incestuous demons that he had become aware of only after his daughter was dead. Tracy, who’s agreed to the ritual partly because she’s getting paid good money to house sit and practice her music while Francis is out at the strip club and partly because her own father, Francis’s brother, has hurt Francis in the past and she feels guilty, has finally had enough.
“You think this is normal,” she says, “what we do?”
“What do we do?” Francis asks.
“That’s just it,” Tracy responds. “We don’t speak about it.”
“You know that feeling you get sometimes Tracy that you didn’t ask to be brought into the world,” Francis finally says. “Well then who did? All I’m saying is that nobody asked to be brought into the world, you just ended up getting here. So the question is, now that you’re here, who’s asking you to stay?”
If that’s a heavy mind fuck to lay on a 15-year-old girl, Tracy, played by the excellent Sarah Polley early in her career, has no illusions about her uncle. She decides to break off their relationship, to “quit” her job as a babysitter, even though she knows deep in her heart it’s the only thing allowing Francis to believe he’s still a father, that he didn’t lose his daughter, and his wife a few years later. Francis, in fact, as a father who has outlived his child, is essentially a dead man, but he’s more than that. He’s every man under neoliberalism, going through the motions of living in a dead culture he knows is a fraud.
Francis, in fact, is not just spiritually dead. He’s a low level operative in a burgeoning surveillance state. He’s quite literally the tax man, but he’s more. He attempts to blackmail the pet shop owner, who also makes money on the side smugging the eggs of rare birds through customs, into killing the man he perceives as his rival for Christina, the dancer at Exotica he’s obsessed with. The murder never goes anywhere but the intent to murder is significant. Sex, under neoliberalism, is sterile. It never goes beyond voyeurism and the cash nexus, never quite gets out of the strip club. Francis is able to “hire” Christina to do a lap dance for him exactly the way he’s able to hire Tracy as his babysitter. Francis wants to kill Eric for taking Christina away from him. Eric tricks Francis into touching Christina. That gets him banned from Exotica for violating the rules. But Christina and Francis never had any connection to begin with. Unlike Eric, he never really saw Christina as a potential lover. Francis hates Eric, not for taking his lover, but for taking his illusion away.
Indeed, Eric, played by the great actor Elias Koteas, is the hero of the whole movie, even though, up until the very end, we thought he was just a sleazy DJ who gave voice to the pedophilic desires of the men at the strip club. By bluffing Francis into touching Christina, he releases him from his purgatory. He makes him face up to grief he was using the illusion of voyeuristic sex to avoid. In his own quiet way, Eric is a revolutionary. He calls thing for what they are. He shatters the pornographic, neoliberal facade keeping Francis from getting on with his life. He releases him from Christina’s power, and releases Christina from her codependent need to keep Francis under her spell. Does Exotica end on a happy note? Certainly not. But it does end with everybody finally admitting the truth.