Exotica

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Synopsis

One of the defining independent films of the 1990s, Atom Egoyan’s mesmerizing international breakthrough Exotica takes the conventions of the psychological thriller into bold new territory—unsettling, dreamlike, and empathetic. At the neon-drenched Toronto strip club of the film’s title, a coterie of lost and damaged souls—including a man haunted by grief (Bruce Greenwood), a young woman with whom he shares an enigmatic bond (Mia Kirshner), an obsessive emcee (Elias Koteas), and a smuggler of rare bird eggs (Don McKellar)—search for redemption as they work through the traumas of their mysteriously interconnected histories in an obsessive cycle of sex, pain, jealousy, and catharsis. Masterfully weaving together past and present, Egoyan constructs a spellbinding narrative puzzle, the full emotional impact of which doesn’t hit until the last piece is in place.

Picture 9/10

Atom Egoyan’s Exotica makes its American Blu-ray debut through The Criterion Collection and is presented here on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Criterion’s 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a new 4K restoration taken from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative.

Having only received lousy DVDs in Canada and the US (both non-anamorphic) and then incredibly mediocre Blu-rays in Canada and the UK (both likely using the same dated master) it’s a marvel to see the film looking as fresh and crisp as it does here through Criterion's new Blu-ray edition. It utterly trounces the Canadian Alliance-Atlantis presentation and produces a considerably more film-like look in comparison to that edition’s flat video look. The new scan has done a far better job in capturing the fine details and textures in turn leading to better clarity and an improved sense of depth. Close-ups and long shots all look drastically sharper in comparison and those finer details—from the elaborate dressings of the central club or the algae growing in the tanks found in a dank pet store—just leap off of the screen now.

This new presentation also manages to capture the shadows far better. There was a real flatness to the shadows in the Canadian disc thanks to murky blacks, but this presentation features improved range and contrast to fix that aspect. Light blends into the shadows far better, the presentation rendering cleaner gradients as things shift into the deeper blacks. Highlights also look quite good and help in the lighting of the club, yet this aspect is probably best displayed in a sequence where a character is thrown out of a club into the rain. The rain drops reflect the light nicely with each drop looking crisp and distinct while the light bounces gorgeously off of the wet asphalt without impacting the black levels. The fact this isn’t getting a 4K release is an incredible shame.

The improved clarity of detail also carries on through to how film grain has been captured and, in the biggest surprise for me, how well a job Criterion’s encode does in rendering it. Despite Criterion improving their track record on encodes the past few months with a number of their presentations and encodes looking quite good (save a few spotty ones here and there) I wasn’t holding out much hope for this one since Criterion has included, as a feature, a whole other feature film: Egoyan’s Calendar. I was pretty sure the disc would have the two films (even if they’re not that long) fighting each other for space, but that’s clearly not the case. Criterion has given precedence to the main feature and the grain looks gorgeous. It looks incredibly distinct and sharp, and I couldn’t find a moment where it ever looked unnatural. I can’t even say that any other artifact ever popped up. This has to be the best looking encode I’ve seen from them in a long time (Calendar, on the other hand, does end up taking a bit of the hit).

I will admit to being a little unsure around the colour grading, which does take on a bit of a yellow-green tint, though I can’t say I found it too oppressive. Blues still manage to pop up and they do look nice, but the club does look a little greener than I recall despite some blue lights still working their way through. The flashbacks that take place in the field also look a bit greener than I recall, but admittedly it’s hard to say what’s right or wrong since the colours on the Canadian disc maybe push purple or magenta a bit too much. Also, the look does suit the tone of the flashbacks. Either way the hues don’t impact much, the blacks still looking good.

Outside of faint scratches popping up here and there the restoration has also cleaned this up meticulously. It all really looks gorgeous, helped further by Criterion’s impressive looking encode. A drastic improvement over all previous North American options.

Audio 8/10

Criterion includes an excellent sounding 2.0 DTS-HD MA surround soundtrack. The club setting and Mychael Danna’s score spread effectively between the channels. Dialogue is focused mostly to the front center and sounds sharp and clear, never drowned out by any of the background effects. There’s no damage of note and fidelity is excellent.

Extras 9/10

We get a rather impressive little special edition from Criterion even though there sadly isn’t a lot that I would say is specific to the film itself. Making up for that at least is the fact the disc does include one especially impressive bonus: a whole other film eith Egoyan’s 1993 feature Calendar. The 73-minute film was—as Egoyan explains in a new 15-minute introduction for the film—inspired by calendars the director’s family received showing Armenian locations, the only connection he had with the country in his youth. The “plot,” as it is, revolves around a photographer’s (Egoyan) journey to Armenia on a job to photograph churches to be used for an upcoming calendar. He has traveled there with his wife, or fiancée (played by Egoyan’s real-life wife, Arsinée Khanjian), acting as a translator, though there’s a sense they may also be treating it as a sort of vacation. Along with them is a driver (Ashot Adamyan) who also takes the opportunity to talk about the history of these buildings and the locations they sit in. To the driver’s dismay, and eventually his wife’s/ fiancée’s, the photographer isn’t taking much interest in any of this history, his only interest being to do the job he was sent there for. This disinterest appears to then push her and the driver closer together, the photographer witnessing this happening through his lens (maybe more in retrospect), unable to do anything about it.

As with most of Egoyan’s earlier works the film isn’t as straightforward as that plot summary suggests, the story told through flashbacks (memories) and what looks like home video footage taken from the journey. That is all then cut in with what would be a present-day storyline focusing on Egoyan’s photographer lamenting the loss and reflecting on where things went wrong. The film’s construction does allow us to figure out what happened on this trip early on but there is still a lot of misdirection before the film clears up many misconceptions as it progresses. For one, in the present day the photographer appears to be going on dates, maybe in an attempt to move on, but each date seems to go south rather quickly with them asking to use the phone and talk to someone who is clearly more important to them. At first these sequences are rather funny because we’re watching them one way, thinking the guy may just be completely hopeless at love with his subtle smirk seeming to suggest he’s aware. Yet as the film continues, and this keeps happening (leading him to then reflect on that trip during each instance), it becomes apparent there is something else going on here, that he’s deflecting and reenacting something that happened, possibly some defining moment. Everything then starts to take on a very different meaning.

It can be frustrating at first on an initial viewing, but you may find yourself impressed by its construction once its over, with an immediate rewatch bringing things into an entirely different perspective and clarifying why Criterion thought it would be the perfect film to pair with Exotica (they basically share the same themes). Egoyan’s included introduction is also worth watching for some more context behind the film, including a backstory on how he was able to get funding for the film.

It is a bit of a shame (though not all that surprising) that Criterion didn’t give the film its own edition, which I would say it deserves, but getting it here probably makes this edition even more enticing. The one unfortunate drawback with it sharing the disc with another film is that the presentation isn’t as strong as it could be. There is a decent amount of videotaped footage, which is-what-it-is, but the moments shot on film look as though they have been processed a bit leading to a lack of fine details, maybe due to the smaller file and lower bitrate. The film has also been given a Dolby Digital soundtrack as opposed to a lossless one. It’s hard to say whether the presentation suffers more from a weak master or a less-than-stellar encode, but it’s a disappointment either way.

The disc then includes more of the director’s work in three short films, starting off with Egoyan’s 1981 student film (made at the University of Toronto), Peep Show. The unsettling (yet amusing) 7-minute experimental film centers around a photo booth that gives you a bit more for your money though holds back the payoff, a sign of what was to come with the filmmaker's future work since Egoyan can set up expectations only to not follow through in the manner one may expect.

Also here is his 19-minute segment from the 1991 omnibus film Montreal Stories. Called En passant, it features Khanjian and Maury Chaykin (who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Exotica) as, respectively, a customs agent (with an odd habit) and business traveler who cross paths at the airport after he flies in hoping to experience the city before doing whatever it is he’s doing there. It appears he may not have much luck immersing himself in the city, though.

The final short, Artaud Double Bill, was created for the 60th Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and features two friends who were planning to meet up at a screening of Godard’s Vivre sa vie only to get separated, the one friend instead ending up at a screening of Egoyan’s The Adjuster. They end up talking to each other through texts (before phones became a real nuisance in theaters) but start up a conversation around how attractive Antonin Artaud is after he pops up in the Passion of Joan of Arc sequence in Godard’s film, sharing a moment around the film despite both not being there. It runs 3-minutes and features a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack with pretty strong bass at one point.

For features specific to the film Criterion does port over the audio commentary featuring Egoyan and composer Mychael Danna from the 2012 Canadian Blu-ray edition. The track does go over details about the production, the film’s themes, its structure, characters, and so on, but interestingly the focus ends up being more on the score and how it enhances the story. Throughout the two will talk about specific cues, what inspired them, what instruments were used (Danna mentioning he had recently sold the synthesizer he used for this film to someone else), and what Danna was hoping to invoke. The conversation even spreads out to some of Egoyan’s other films with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi even coming up (Danna was recording the score for that film at the time). This all proves rather interesting, including when Danna shares how he would do things differently now, as does a short discussion around how scores are handled now and what a “music supervisor” would do. I liked the different focus of this track, and anyone interested in film scores may get even more out of this.

Criterion also digs up 23-minutes’ worth of excerpts from the 1994 Cannes press conference following the screening of the film and featuring Egoyan, Khanjian, and actor Bruce Greenwood. Greenwood shares how he came to bringing the grief out for his character, using aspects from his personal life, while Egoyan explains how he “sexually charges” the film by holding back what would be expected. He also has a good explanation around one scene that contains a surprising amount of exposition, especially since the film doesn’t seem at all interested in easily spelling things out.

The only new feature to be included (outside of the introduction for Calendar) is an interview between Egoyan and director/actor Sarah Polley. The conversation starts out with Egoyan complimenting Polley on the fine filmmaker she has become before the conversation veers towards a typical reflection on the production, Polley even sharing why she did the film and how she was able to work her way at getting the role, much to Egoyan’s amusement (he actually couldn't recall how she came to be in the film, though is thankful she was). But then the conversation shifts and it changes into something else when Polley talks about what the film meant to her then and how she looks at it now, its themes around memory and how they can shape things being of the most interest to her and how it has reflected in her own work. The two also talk quickly about the Canadian film industry now and how much harder it is to get something made, both agreeing Exotica would probably never see the light of day now. And Egoyan even shares how the film almost went straight-to-video in the States after a certain executive, whom they refuse to name (though it’s very obvious who it is), was angry Egoyan wouldn’t change the film the way he wanted (the request was ridiculous, too). Thankfully J. Hoberman’s positive review for the film saved the day and it got a theatrical release. It’s a wonderful discussion and well worth watching, even ending on a rather funny note.

Jason Wood then provides a short essay on the film in the included insert, filling in that academic gap a little bit, though an academic feature about the film (or both films) on the disc and maybe something on Egoyan (since this marks his debut in the collection) would have been welcome. Still, getting Calendar as a bonus film still makes this edition a helluva deal.

Closing

After numerous lackluster releases on home video in North America Criterion saves the day with a beautiful new high-def presentation sourced from a sharp looking 4K restoration. It’s worth picking up just for that.

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Directed by: Atom Egoyan
Year: 1994
Time: 103 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1150
Licensor: Ego Film Arts
Release Date: September 20 2022
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.85:1 ratio
English 2.0 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 Audio commentary featuring Atom Egoyan and composer Mychael Danna   New conversation between Atom Egoyan and filmmaker and actor Sarah Polley   Calendar, a 1993 feature film by Egoyan, with a new introduction   Peep Show, a 1981 short film by Egoyan   En passant, a 1991 short film by Egoyan featuring Maury Chaykin and Arsinée Khanjian   Artaud Double Bill, a 2007 short film by Egoyan, commissioned for the sixtieth anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival   Audio from the film’s 1994 Cannes Film Festival press conference, featuring Atom Egoyan, Arsinée Khanjian, actor Bruce Greenwood, and producer Camelia Frieberg   An essay by author and filmmaker Jason Wood