By Zachary Woodruff
THE USE OF symbols and visual parallels can add a lot to a movie. What makes Psycho a great movie, to use a favorite example, are the little touches you can pick up on during repeated viewings: bird imagery, the creative placing of mirrors, the way windshield wipers foreshadow the knifing murder, and so on.
Canadian writer/director Atom Egoyan revels in those sorts of clever cinematic touches, but there's one problem: He forgets to make the rest of the movie interesting. Though I haven't seen his previous films (which include Calendar and Speaking Parts), his latest, Exotica, is an exercise in artistic masturbation.
Little wonder, then, that the picture takes place in a strip club. But it's not just any club--it's Exotica, an establishment that does for nude dancing what Chuck E. Cheese did for pizza. When men enter, they discover a whole other world of fantasy, lust and expensive set decoration. In fact, the ornate, jungle-like interior of the title building is the best thing Exotica has going for it.
The story, as they say, is another story. Actually, to call Exotica's proceedings a "story" is questionable; what Egoyan has constructed is an intricate network of character connections--a map that unfolds slowly as the movie progresses.
The map's main intersection seems to be Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a tax auditor whose daughter has died. In his depression, he regularly visits Exotica to receive $5 private dances from Christina (Mia Kirshner), a young beaut whose shtick is to dress up as a schoolgirl. Kirshner has received raves for her performance, which requires her to do a lot of gyrating around with her shirt unbuttoned, but don't be fooled: This is not an erotic movie, and the unbuttoning of a shirt is about as hot as it gets.
Christina was once the lover of Eric (Elias Koteas), a jealous deejay who hovers over the club drinking whiskey and announcing Christina's performances with the line, "What is it about a schoolgirl that gives her that special something?" (This line is supposed to have deep significance, but rest assured by the end of the movie you and your friends will be uttering it as a joke.) Eric has long dark hair, and if there were such a thing as a Canadian surfer, he would be it.
In a contractual agreement, Eric impregnated the club's owner, Zoe (Arsinee Khanjian, a low-budget version of Isabella Rossellini). Zoe is having an affair with Christina, who, as it turns out, is Francis' former babysitter. Francis' current babysitter (even though he has no baby to sit) is the daughter of his brother, who was having an affair with Francis' wife before Francis' daughter was murdered and his wife died in a car accident. No wonder the guy's depressed.
And then there's Thomas (Don McKellar, best known as Pokey in Highway 61), a gay pet store owner who smuggles rare bird eggs into Toronto. Thomas' love life consists of buying seats next to lonely scalpers at the opera, which is apparently the way gay men meet in Canada.
Egoyan attempts to force as much "meaning" as possible into this convoluted web, mostly through visual parallels. A one-way mirror at an airport is linked to the one-way mirrors at the club. Thomas' incubation of bird eggs is linked to Zoe's pregnancy. The film contains two love triangles; the green fish tanks at the pet shop are reminiscent of the colors at Exotica; and characters can be seen quibbling over money exchanges in a variety of situations. The movie also includes such symbolism as a man who, before masturbating, wraps his hand in toilet paper as if he were wounded.
This all might be impressive if the clever touches didn't amount to the entire content of the film. Egoyan is a filmmaker who has made a name for himself by playing his own cinematic game, but you get the sense the director has started to believe that any storytelling whims, when properly interconnected, can become the basis for intellectual awe. His film has been touted as a "puzzle of the heart," but all I saw was a puzzle.
The only good thing about Exotica is the knowledge that scores of dirty old men will flock to the theaters expecting to be turned on, only to have two hours of passionless film-school pretension dumped in their laps. Serves 'em right for wanting to look at schoolgirls.
Exotica is playing at Century Park (620-0750) and El Dorado (745-6241) cinemas.
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