When Exotica debuted at Cannes in 1994, Atom Egoyan had already earned a reputation for curious, low-key explorations of memory and alienation. His Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, and The Adjuster leaned on video as a kind of metaphor showing how relationships become dependent on individual frames of reference that each move in only one direction — how one person’s blank tape is another’s cherished memory, or how one person’s pornographic display is another’s lifeline. Exotica represented Egoyan’s commercial breakthrough in part because he found an enticing venue for those observations. It’s one of the most fundamentally despairing movies that I know, and yet there is in the precision of its craft, the bravery of its conception, and the depth of its empathy something fundamentally uplifting.
Like his countryman David Cronenberg, Egoyan is one of the few great directors working today whose films reflect not only a consistent worldview, but also a numinous mood. (Also like Cronenberg, Egoyan has set one of this year’s most memorable scenes inside of an automatic car wash.) Appealing no more strenuously to the intellect than to our innate sense for beauty, Egoyan’s films look chilly but eventually surrender warmth. They alienate, distress and confound us. What’s most miraculous is that they close up the wounds they’ve made.
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.