March 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

The key setting of EXOTICA (Miramax, R), the celebrated new movie from the Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan, is a shimmery-dark strip club full of looming palm trees and two-way mirrors (it’s like a Rousseau painting reimagined by Bob Guccione). It’s there that we witness the nightly ritual that becomes the film’s primal scene. Christina (Mia Kirshner), an exquisite young woman with long, wavy dark hair, wanders on stage. She is dressed as a Catholic school girl (white blouse, tartan skirt), and as the beautifully ominous disco strains of Leonard Cohen’s ”Everybody Knows” fill the club, she begins a series of trancelike movements that take her from purity to raunch. Egoyan certainly knows how to exploit our attraction to sin. He’s an owlish prankster who delights in voyeuristic narrative games, and Exotica, as a moment-to-moment experience, is nothing if not seductive. What’s open to question is whether this playful film-noir meta-thriller is more than a series of dazzling puzzle pieces. One man in particular has fixated on Christina: a grave-faced tax auditor named Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who is still reeling from a mysterious tragedy. Night after night, he arranges to have Christina do a table dance for him. As she opens her blouse and rubs her face up against his, he stares in ecstatic torment, whispering hoarse declarations about his desire to ”save” her. Watching Exotica, we’re desperate to know who these people are, and how they ended up here. Slowly, Egoyan dispenses clues. There’s Christina’s relationship with the club’s MC, a hostile hipster sleaze (played by the magnetic Elias Koteas) who used to be her lover and now gets jealous of any man who looks at her twice. In a series of flashbacks, we see these two when they met, as backpacking innocents, which only heightens our curiosity about how they ended up in the flesh trade. There is Francis’ ambiguous friendship with another Lolita-like creature, his blond babysitter niece (Sarah Polley). And there’s the most comic figure in the mix, a shy, stammering gay pet-shop owner (Don McKellar). In the movie’s emotional and suspenseful highlight, Francis gets this fellow to wear a wire into the club so that he can eavesdrop on Christina. The pleasure of Exotica lies in the witty and mind-tickling ways that Egoyan suspends our knowledge of how these stories ultimately fit together. It lies, as well, in Greenwood’s performance; he makes the soft-spoken Francis a moving figure of loss and inchoate desire. The odd thing about Exotica is that the more the picture reveals its secrets, the less interesting it becomes. Egoyan lures us with jailbait naughtiness (and its hidden roots as incest fantasy), with the passing suggestion that his hero may have been involved in the murder of someone close to him. Yet most of the characters’ ”dark” compulsions are illusory. In truth, these people are too wholesome, too innocent, to justify the film’s atmosphere of kinky ambiguity. Egoyan the bad- boy voyeur turns out to be a good-boy prude. When the puzzle finally does come together (with a few rather sizable holes remaining), you realize that Exotica’s entire lure-its fascination with transcendent erotic decadence-has been an elaborate shell game. Like Christina’s dance, the movie is a gorgeous tease, an artful promise of something that never quite arrives. B+


Atom Egoyan
Mia Kirshner,
Elias Koteas,
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