Exotica (1994) – Ace Mini-Review

In anticipation of July 1, I’m reviewing my favourite Canadian movie.

Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner
Written & Directed by: Atom Egoyan
Canada, 1994

How good is this movie?

In a cheap strip club, a lonely, middle-aged man with a tragic backstory goes night after night to see the same stripper’s adolescent school-girl routine. It’s an unsettling premise, the true perversity of which becomes clear only at the film’s end. Meanwhile, a host of other characters deal privately with their individual traumas and insecurities, each so wrapped up in their own issues they fail to recognise the pain in the others. The result is a dark, but not entirely hopeless, lamentation of the commodification of human relationships, in which emotional baggage always inhibits intimacy and “no one gives anything away.”

How ace is this movie?

The film includes straight, gay, and ambiguously bisexual characters, but no one who comes off as particularly ace. The strip club setting means naked female bodies are constantly on display. Still, most of them serve only as a backdrop to the action, and the scenes invite criticism of the male patrons who seek comfort and affirmation through ritualised acts of female objectification. At the centre of it all is Christina, the stripper onto whom the men project their sexual fantasies. They know, because “everybody knows”, that she wants to be fetishised, enjoys their sexual advances, and reciprocates their desire. This “everybody knows” refrain haunts the female character, highlighting the way female sexuality is constructed around male needs. The truth is that nobody knows – because nobody bothers to ask – what Christina wants. Though she has two sexual relationships, she is clearly in search of something very different. What, is never made clear, but it is obviously more than the narrowly sexual and commercial interactions most people offer her. She seems to get some of what she needs out of her relationship with Francis, but is unable to define exactly what that is. She also finds that Thomas’s lack of sexual interest in her allows them to share a rare degree of intimacy. In many ways, she is like an asexual in a hypersexual society, drawn to non-sexual interactions but not always able to articulate or achieve her desires. However, one could just as easily say that she is a woman in a patriarchal society, and also in a male-centred story. The movie is overwhelmingly concerned with male sexuality, and it is the male characters who get the most development. While Francis and Eric are eventually able to share some of their pain and thus achieve a measure of healing, Christina never seems to break out of the narrowly sexualised role she has been assigned. This makes it difficult to make any statements about her sexuality, and makes her a poor representative of asexual experience. The difference between this and a movie like Mustang is that in that latter our identification was with the girls and their outrage at having normative sexuality thrust on them. In Exotica, Christina remains opaque, a passive victim of commercialism and patriarchy.

3.5 Stars; 3 Aces

Happy Canada Day!

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