In "Exotica," A '90s Strip-Club Fantasy Unravels
Before Elizabeth Berkley's "Showgirls" and Demi Moore's "Striptease," there was "Exotica." Rachel Rabbit-White digs in.
Exotica, Atom Egoyan’s 1994 film (currently streaming on YouTube) opens with a lush interior, plants, a seashell lamp, the blue glow of what we soon realize is strip club lighting. Exotica, the strip club in the film, is made of pure fantasy. There’s a shallow wading pool where strippers dance in clear vinyl costumes, and above them a swing of vines where leggy costumed-girls glide through dark air.
Sex work in cinema has always been, not a genre, but a constant theme. There are the classics, movies like Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Lola Montes (1955), Nights of Cabiria (1957), Never on Sunday (1960), Vivre sa Vie (1962), , Belle De Jour (1967), and In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The 1990s saw a boom of films set in strip clubs—Showgirls would come out a year after Exotica, Strip Tease the year after that, Dancing at The Blue Iguana in 2000. But Exotica—which won an award at Cannes and was given 4 stars by Roger Ebert, who added the film to his 2009 Great Movies list—contained an arthouse aesthetics deeper than the Blockbuster strip club flicks that would follow.
The club’s postmodern interiors reflect an orientalism that Western culture has long appropriated in its “adult entertainment.” The club evokes the lusciousness of the Copacabana as if it were set inside a greenhouse, with the circular architecture of a Turkish bath. Egoyan, who is Egyptian-born, infuses the interiors with gold and arabesques, giving the club a Victorian-Egyptian-Rococo aesthetic, perhaps best read as reminiscences of the director’s childhood homeplace, with all the muted sexuality and family secrets that these memories bring with them. In many ways, the setting of the strip club is perhaps the most alluring part of the film (the owners of the building begged Egoyan not to tear the set down when he left, though he refused) but it’s a good that borders on CheeseCake Factory-bad.
As the viewer is given a visual tour of the club’s plastic paradise, a voice-over commands: “You have to ask yourself what brought the person to this point?
Perhaps this is the question the movie is trying to get us to answer and, at first, it seems for each character it is both their fantasies and grief. Fantasies that lead to love, which inevitably leads to loss, and then to grief, the kind that never fully goes away, and circles back into fantasies that remind us of the ones we lost.
The club is packed with men in suits and sunglasses, figures of seeming regret, whose daily life heavily weighs on them like the glasses of whiskey they keep reaching for. The dancers stand on the table, languidly swinging topless while a strict no touch rule applies, and on the stage we see Christina (played by Mia Kirshner) dressed in a school girl uniform, dancing to Leonard Cohen’s "Everybody Knows." The song is out of place in a strip club but sexy, full of knowing and longing, and her dance is awkward, stiff, symbolic: something between the deliberate gestures of a mime, the dance of a child, and the dissociated movements of someone who’s taken too much ketamine.
After the dance she moves to the table of a regular client, Francis. The DJ (Elias Kotas) talks on the mic in seductive escort-ad copy: “He comes in here every other night. He has his favorite drink...at his favorite table with his favorite dancer. Sometimes he has to wait for her, and sometimes she's waiting for him. She'll protect him. She's his angel.”
Death hangs heavy over the characters in the film. A gay exotic pet shop owner (who comes into play with a plot-twist) is being audited after the death of his father. The strip club owner, who is pregnant, is mourning the death of her mother who started the club as a “special place” for clients with “special tastes.”
Through a series of purposefully-twisting flashbacks in this murder mystery without revelations, we learn about an extremely disturbing child death at the center of their lives. A young girl, who we learn was the daughter of strip club-patron Francis, was brutally murdered. Francis visits schoolgirl-skirt clad Christina every night and hires a babysitter while he’s out even though there is no baby to sit.We see Francis’ empty and immaculate house, everything left as it were before his daughter’s death. The same photo of his daughter, wearing a school-girl uniform, is framed over and over all around the house. The movie, which is hypnotic in its hushed-tones, blue lighting, looping soundtrack, and pleasurable use of narrative repetition begins to take a Cronenberg-straight-to-VHS turn.
So who killed the daughter? It is never revealed. The climax of the narrative revolves around Francis being thrown out of the strip club for touching Christina. The film’s dialogues centers on “touching”—“what happens when I touch her?,” Francis asks. Later, Christina in a conversation with the pet-shop owner emotionally repeats “he touched me” “he touched me” as she is struggling to express how betrayed she feels. It’s hard not to read this purposeful repetitions as a confession. The movie reveals the mystery through its formal elements while in its story-telling it constantly denies it (apparently the perpetrator has been caught and it is never revealed who it was).
What plays out in the narrative between Christina and Francis (and the DJ who seems bent on stopping their toxic dynamic) is a tired cliche about sex workers and child sexual abuse. (The final twist at the end of the movie really brings this trope home.) For a film with a lot of potential to be a stylish moody art-house movie about sex workers, about fantasy and grief, the tired narrative is a letdown.
Sex work as a narrative trope often disappoints—since Our Lady of The Camellias became La Traviata, which became Pretty Woman. Whether it’s Liz Taylor playing a call girl in Butterfield 8 or Nicole Kidman as Satine, the story is about how women pay a price for freedom, often with our very lives. And yet, thirsty for representation we watch, when the Exotica credits rolled, I started the film over again.
Repetition is the film’s obsession. There is pleasure in the looping doom-flute-electro-arabic soundtrack, in the characters’ actions that they repeat, the lush jewel-toned or dark and neon colors. When the final twists played out again, I found myself laughing. The movie is almost good but in its self-seriousness it becomes ridiculous, which is the line one always walks with fantasy.