After the final reel of Exotica had unspooled, like a slender key filling the last hole in a wooden puzzlebox, a woman at the New York Film Festival screening last year had a question for director Atom Egoyan. She wanted to know what happened at the end of the movie. Visibly perturbed at the question, Egoyan dodged it. Heads craned as the woman pressed for his answer. She explained that she had seen each of Egoyan’s previous films, had enjoyed them tremendously; it was just this film, she said, this was the one that she didn’t “get.” Finally, Egoyan gave in and answered her question. Here is what the last scene in the film meant, he explained, his four- or five-word declamation a stark and numbing negation of the gentle, almost languid spirit of the film, which invites the audience to its own discovery. The “what happened” is simple enough to explain, but you can’t really understand it unless you’re fully caught up in the cinema when it unfolds in front of you.

If you’re like me, when you first hear that the director of Speaking Parts and The Adjuster has made a film centered around the patrons and employees of a strip club, you probably say “uh-oh” and start flipping through the paper to find out what else is playing. But you shouldn’t. Previous films had established the Canadian Egoyan as an austere, clinical filmmaker with a cold grip on his characters’ collective well being. In Exotica, Egoyan’s detachment is like a melting icecap, or a striptease — shrinking away, peeling off layer after layer of the soft-shelled characters he’s investigating. Moreover, it seems as though he’s actually fond of these people.

Obviously, the sleaze potential for such a story is tremendous, but Exotica is an ambitiously sexual film that doesn’t embarrass the viewer. Exotica itself is a lush and fantastic place — sort of a sinister cross between The Playboy Channel and a Fellini film, with a thundering Leonard Cohen soundtrack. Christina (Mia Kirshner) is the star dancer around whose history the film revolves. The other at-first inscrutable characters include tax auditor Francis (Bruce Greenwood), rare bird smuggler Thomas (Don McKellar), Exotica’s creepy master of ceremonies Eric (Elias Koteas, with a great FM-radio voice), and Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian, pregnant at the time with her and Egoyan’s son), the woman in charge of the proceedings at Exotica.

Much is made of the erotic conundrum at the heart of a striptease (or, one supposes, an erotic film): the dancer’s actions are meant to arouse and excite the patron, who is helpless to be anything but a passive viewer. At Exotica (as in, one supposes, an erotic film), voyeurism is a frustrated alias for emotional intercourse, and mother figure Zoe respects the power of those relationships, even as she zealously protects her dancers from customers who commit the ultimate transgression of touching a performer.

On a theoretical level, Egoyan is well aware of the relationship between Exotica (the club) and Exotica (the film), the ways in which movies have always commingled voyeurism and cathartic emotional experience. In the post-modern era, erotic films have tended to either indict or (mostly) shamelessly indulge the viewer. Egoyan’s achievement in Exotica is singularly fitting, as he yokes the experience of the movie audience to that of the audience in his film, acknowledging erotic needs without condemning them, and stripping down the obsessions that color a life.

But on a more basic level, Exotica is simply a very wise film. Even though its explorations are quite serious, there’s something of a sense of humor, and the spectacle of Exotica itself, quite unlike the typical big-city strip club, is somehow reassuring. After shooting was complete and Egoyan’s crew began dismantling the set, the building’s owner begged them to leave Exotica intact. Egoyan refused, ensuring the club’s status as a fleeting construct of the cinematic imagination, in existence for as long as it takes to sit in the dark, eyes on Egoyan’s deeply felt psychoerotic spectacle.

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