Style matches content in Exotica. The film is set in a strip club, and writer-director Atom Egoyan, a Canadian of Armenian descent, doles out his story as slowly and strategically as a stripper doles out skin. Sadly, having slipped your six bucks under Exotica's garter belt, you may find it just as unsatisfying as sitting in a strip club.
Egoyan's narrative method is to repeat scenes and images over and over, with slight variations, each time revealing a little more about the various characters, their pasts and their connections to one another. Francis (Bruce Greenwood) visits the title club regularly to engage the table-dancing services of Christina (Mia Kirshner), a delectable young stripper whose gimmick is dancing in the uniform of a schoolgirl. Christina's former lover is Eric (the usually unimpressive Elias Koteas, here excellent). He's the club's deejay, and he turns his heavy-breathing commentary into angry, ironic exercises in self-torment. He's upset because Christina's thrown him over for Zoe (Arsin‚e Khanjian), Exotica's female--indeed, very pregnant--proprietor. Bit by bit, through carefully placed flashbacks and passages of brusque, enigmatic dialogue, we begin to discern the central, dreadful event that links these people--what Christina is running from, why Francis feels the need to keep seeing her, why Eric is S.O.L. when it comes to his love for Christina. Zoe is purely a symbolic figure. From her biological state right down to her name--Greek for "life"--she represents that for which Christina is yearning (Khanjian is Egoyan's girlfriend in real life; he's the father of the child she was carrying).
Egoyan attempts to weave in yet another strand, this one involving a young pet-store owner (Don McKellar, co-writer of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) who smuggles parrot eggs into Canada. This subplot is intriguing in itself, but its relationship to the main plot is poorly worked out, not to mention that it remains unresolved. All through Exotica, Egoyan holds the attention. The film succeeds in generating a potently charged atmosphere, and there's no denying that this is something that most movies fail to do. But the attentiveness is anticipatory--you're waiting for the moment that you assume is being led up to, when the brooding images and metronomic pace will suddenly click together to some stunningly emotional payoff. Then the movie's over, and the dramatic questions have been resolved (except for what happened to the poor parrot eggs), and something still feels lacking--namely, an emotional connection. It's this same lack that (I'd guess) would make a table dance so finally cold an experience, no matter how well-shaped the body or how expertly it's stripped.--M. V. Moorhead