Go ahead, laugh when I tell you that this film set in a strip club is as seriously intended as a tax audit. Actually, a tax audit is in there, too. But we’re jumping ahead. Just don’t confuse Exotica with the flashy lap-dancing epic Showgirls currently being shot in Vegas by director Paul Verhoeven with an NC-17 rating in mind. Flashy is not in the film vocabulary of Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan, whose five previous films (Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, The Adjuster and Calendar) also speak to a dislocation in contemporary life that supersedes the erotic. Egoyan is an acquired taste, but once in, you’re hooked. Exotica is Egoyan’s most accomplished and seductive film to date — even tackling acute psychic distress, Egoyan’s deadpan comic eye never flinches.
Exotica is a strip club with rules. You look; you don’t touch. Egoyan wants us to look, too, though not at the obvious. He wants us to see past the flesh that brings in customers and to draw conclusions he won’t spell out. Francis, the tax inspector played by Bruce Greenwood, returns often to watch Christina (Mia Kirshner) do her schoolgirl strip. Christina used to baby-sit for Francis’ daughter. His niece Tracey (Sarah Polley) has the job now, even though Francis’ daughter is presumed dead. Christina and Eric (Elias Koteas), the club DJ, met years ago during a search involving Francis’ missing child.
As Christina strips for Francis, he stares at her in expectation of answers she doesn’t seem to have. Jealous Eric doesn’t like those stares; he complains to Zoe (ArsinTe Khanjian), the pregnant club owner, and eventually gets Francis bounced. Francis bribes Thomas (Don McKellar), an exotic-pet-store owner he’s auditing, to question Christina in his place at Exotica. In the form of a taut psychological thriller, Egoyan plumbs the violence of the mind in ways that are unique and unnerving.