in Profiles | 06 JAN 95
Featured in
Issue 20

Distant Lives

Atom Egoyan

in Profiles | 06 JAN 95

The opening words of Exotica (1994), Atom Egoyan's most recent film, form a refrain that echoes across all his work with its cast of characters in extreme professional, emotional and psychological states. In Exotica, the place in question is the eponymous strip club at which Francis, the person in question, is a regular client. To the accompaniment of the increasingly edgy patter of Eric, the resident DJ-cum-Greek-chorus for the club's male habitués, Francis comes to watch one performer in particular, Christina, whose stage persona is that of schoolgirl jailbait. 'Five dollars is all it takes to have one of our beautiful foxes come to your table and show you the mysteries of their world', Eric drools over the microphone. Francis pays his five dollars, regularly. Blank-faced, permanently rigid with shock, he watches Christina's table dance-routine. Leaning towards her he whispers, aghast, 'What would I do if someone hurt you?'

The scene is archetypal Egoyan - sexuality, ritual, repression and the ever-present threat of a transgression that borders on perversion and derangement. The setting of the club is central to the film, a literal mise-en-scène of voyeurism and deferred desire. It is the arena in which Francis and Christina play out their private arrangement and Eric agonises over the loss of Christina, his former lover. Within and around this setting are woven the other strands of the story: Thomas cruises the ballet for gay pick-ups, operates a highly lucrative egg-smuggling scam and owns a pet shop which is being audited by Francis. Tracey is paid by Francis, her uncle, to 'baby-sit' at his house - even though it is no longer a family home (his daughter was murdered some years previously and his wife killed in a car crash.)

The French have a pretty phrase for the condition of which Egoyan is cinema's foremost poet - la déformation professionnelle, which means job conditioning: the way in which the careers we pursue, the professional circles in which we move can warp and infect our personalities. When applied to Egoyan's universe this phrase takes on a dimension used consistently by the director as a dramatic principle - what happens when the déformation is also personal? What results from the collision of the two spheres of the social and the emotional, the personal and the professional, when one is under psychological duress?

In Egoyan's films this drama often unfolds in strictly demarcated professional environments. In Family Viewing (1987) the action develops across a nursing home, a condominium and a telephone sex establishment; in Speaking Parts (1989), a hotel and a video mausoleum; and in The Adjuster (1991) a censor's screening room and a motel supply the principal social locales. Calendar (1993) differs slightly, in that the camcorder location footage of the Armenian countryside could well be interpreted as being screened in the film's single setting, the apartment of the emotionally paralysed photographer (played by Egoyan). Defined in part by their jobs, Egoyan's characters seek to accommodate their secret lives and the frequently overwhelming weight of their emotional baggage within these contexts, but their equilibrium is shown to be fragile: breakdown is possibly inherent in the strategies they choose.

'It's to do with boundaries and parameters and social codes.' Egoyan explains, 'What types of behaviour are accepted in the context of a society? So I show people exhibiting or manifesting characteristics that would be classified as pathological outside of their professions. But because some aspect of their job allows them to indulge or curb their impulses, their madness is somehow controlled or accepted. What you're seeing in all my films are the limits of that. You are seeing people who have been harbouring certain tendencies over a period of time in the guise of their profession and these forces and pressures are somehow building up towards crises which these positions cannot contain. So, in The Adjuster, Hera, a censor, secretly tapes pornography to show her sister, for what she presumably believes are altruistic reasons. When she is caught by another censor who has his own agenda, there's this strange, barbed conversation where they're both trying to explain each other's motivations and impulses but are on completely different tracks. And Noah, an insurance adjuster, is so lacking in self-esteem that he can only understand or feel a sense of personality when other people are projecting their need onto him. In Exotica, Eric is so traumatised by the loss of his love that he has to deconstruct it, he has to break it down in the crudest, most obvious way and he's sanctioned to do that to an extent. But we see the result: as the club owner says, 'The customers are feeling uncomfortable'. He's not doing his job properly. At a certain point the character's jobs are not enhanced by their neuroses and that sends them into a state of panic. The fact is that the people go out of their way to distort themselves into an unrecognisable form because they can't really address who they are.'

For ten years Egoyan has been an auteur in the fullest sense of the term - writing, directing and producing his films and working with an almost stock company of performers. These include Arsinée Khanjian who, in Exotica, plays Zoe the club owner, pregnant with Eric's child; and Elias Koteas, Noah in The Adjuster, who plays Eric like a loping riff on De Niro's Max Cady - with the same sense of grungy menace, but used here to conceal a terrible emotional desolation. If the themes through which Egoyan approaches characterisation and milieu are clearly constant across his oeuvre, it is his filmic style and the orthodox conception of him as cinema's video wunderkind that has consistently marked him down as occupying a place at the experimental end of contemporary art cinema. With Exotica, the film that deserves to push Egoyan through to a mainstream art house audience, the use of video has been refined down to a minimal but nonetheless telling status. Ironically, mainstream cinema has now cottoned on to video-in-film, though only to the most limited of its formal possibilities - 'You want voyeurism? You've got it. Just shove in a bit of footage shot off a surveillance monitor. You want first-person confessional? No problem. Give the second assistant director a camcorder.' But Egoyan must at least have the satisfaction of knowing that, along with modernist supremos such as Godard and Wenders, he has been able to use video, that most anonymously corporate and quotidian of technologies, in a way that has been developed to personal, expressive ends. Perhaps it was time for a change, time to confound expectations of him as a camcorder fetishist. Exotica connotes its thematic strand of voyeurism in ways other than the now conventional tropes of video. Two-way mirrors, for example, proliferate: first in a customs hall through which Thomas is smuggling rare eggs, and then throughout the club sequences where Eric observes Christina and Francis' therapeutic transactions of solace and guilty desire. In Calendar, camcorder imagery was deployed extensively and accrued a density that had as much to do with the film's use of offscreen space as it had with video imagery per se. Exotica uses one repeated camcorder image, that of Francis' wife and child playing at the family piano, the mother with her hand raised to shield them from the lens that Francis brandishes.

'The value of that sequence is that it allows us some kind of entry into Francis' dilemma: he has put himself in a situation where he's conducting a therapeutic relationship with Christina based on a need to deal with his grief at the loss of his daughter. He has projected the image of his daughter onto Christina and he plays out dark fantasies with her that are not even sexual. Because they meet in a strip joint he has inadvertently sexualised the image or memory of his daughter and is dealing with a tremendous amount of guilt as a result. The repeated image of the mother protecting the daughter takes on a very ominous tone and we associate this image with a sense of threat and menace. What we don't see until the end of the film is that it's a very innocent and playful moment. What interested me in this film is that technology allows us to reformat our own history to serve an emotional imperative. It's a quite different use of video from the other films where video becomes a way of filtering experience. The problem with film, as opposed to other art forms, is that you're not allowed to use the devices that are closest to you for fear of self-parody. Artists like Cindy Sherman or Jenny Holzer have been able to repeat the central devices that have distinguished their careers without fear of this hampering their development. The themes that I'm interested in are pretty obvious, but the devices that I use to explore these themes had to be modified. So, instead of a video image in this film you have a uniform, a schoolgirl's costume, and that becomes the filter, the image that you have to understand. Someone has transformed themselves into this myth, this object. Why? What is the nature and the history of that decision? What is being dealt with in that relationship? How is it being worked through? What is being seen ultimately? These questions are still being invited but not in so obvious a way as in Calendar or Family Viewing.'

Perhaps because they seem overwhelmingly formalistic in concern, Egoyan's films have rarely been acknowledged for the powerful emotional pull they exert. It's a difficult issue to address because the emotional landscapes are not pretty. Often they broach taboos - in Exotica, incest and sexual abuse, as well as the run-of-the-mill darkness of male sexuality - that cinema generally prefers to render through Manichaean polarities. There are no such easy options here. Egoyan seems less interested in the moral orthodoxies that coalesce around subjects such as pornography than he does in the personal and ethical trials of characters living in the thick of it and finding a therapeutic value in the perverse. But once caught in their circuits of solipsism and deadening self-pleasure, his characters are scrutinised with an understanding that one could call a sort of humanism. For, if it's a matter of catharsis, for characters and spectators alike - and most of Egoyan's characters are themselves spectators, often of their own lives - the moment of the emotional pay-off in his films never acts as closure in the conventional narrative sense. The cases may well have been opened and examined but we know when we leave the cinema that the emotional baggage has still to be packed away somewhere. In Exotica there is a moment of such partial catharsis when Francis, lurking outside the club, is prepared to kill Eric until it transpires that it was Eric who, with Christina, first happened upon the body of Lisa, Francis' daughter. The two men embrace. As Egoyan observes, 'It's a simple gesture. But why was it so long in coming? The reason, when you think of it, is odd. At one point Eric says to Christina, "It used to be comforting watching you dance for him. It soothed me." Which is to say that, while they were in a relationship, seeing Christina with Francis proved to Eric how generous she was with her emotions. Watching her give a gift to Francis was satisfying to Eric and, in a way, he found that more compelling than breaking this wall and making contact with Francis directly.'

Intimately linked with these issues of character and motive, and certainly responsible for generating the emotional force of the film, is the question of structure. Of Exotica, Egoyan has written that 'I wanted to structure the film like a striptease, gradually revealing an emotionally Ioaded history', but another, equally applicable analogy springs to mind. The shape of his films represent that of a pathological condition, with its rituals and compulsions to repeat, seen from without and readily inhabited. The enigmatic and bizarre details are exhibited, developed, deepened and their underlying causes are revealed. But resolution remains a long way off. Exotica closes with a version of the same image that ends The Adjuster - the family home. In The Adjuster, it is a masquerade, a mirage in a wilderness, a show-home that, at the end of the film, goes up in flames. Exotica ends on an extended flashback sequence of Francis and Christina before Lisa was killed. Driving her home after she has visited their house, he mentions that Lisa has told him that Christina, 'is not happy at home'. The inference is one of domestic abuse. As Christina walks up the driveway, closes the front door the camera rests on the facade of the house. Like many a successful 'open' ending, it works because it gathers into itself the cumulative force of all that has gone before. But, as a flashback, it is part of an approach to structure that, while present in his previous films, is brilliantly worked through in Exotica. The closing sequence is a flashback apart, a coda. The main body of the film has a parallel structure that brings the past finally into the present by gradually establishing the scenes of the search for Lisa's body as the first meeting between Eric and Christina. Past and present are juxtaposed, contrasted and clarified cumulatively. Barely cued as flashbacks in the conventional sense, when the two tenses come together they do so with maximum impact and emotional force.

'In Exotica, we go into the flashback off of someone and we come out off of someone else. The flashbacks are shared experiences. How do we experience and play back our memory? Do we see ourselves as participants, or do we see it from our own point of view? These are questions that I used to torture myself over. The formalistic concerns are something that if you indulge yourself in can become paralysing. I've been so self-conscious about the technique of the flashback that I used to use characters playing flashbacks. Like in Family Viewing, the boy finds the videotapes, puts them in a monitor and we see them as flashbacks. But they're cued, they're mechanical, they're in present time. Or, in Speaking Parts, watching the images of the boy in the mausoleum, we are aware of a process that is conjuring up those images, and that was mainly because I never quite understood how to construct a flashback. The one time I used the technique before was largely unsuccessful: this was the very important flashback at the end of The Adjuster, when you realise how Noah met the people he has installed in the motel. I found that few people understood that as a flashback - most understood it as a state of mind. I thought this was because I was unsure of my use of the device. Calendar was so important for me, as a sketch really, because it taught me to be less self conscious about shifts in time. Based on that film, I was able to approach the flashbacks in Exotica with more confidence and not to worry about cueing them. I was so inspired by Tarkovsky's book Sculpting in Time - that's what cinema is about. There are two things that my generation is really suspicious about and they're both devices that are really important in cinema. One is the flashback and the other is the voice-over. The hair on my neck bristles when I hear the word voice-over because I immediately think of it as a compromise - an attempt to explain what should be evident. The same goes for the flashback, it somehow suggests that the narrative structure hasn't conveyed enough. Yet both are devices that can be poetically employed.'

If Egoyan's concern with filmic structure as a means of conveying the working of the memory has been distilled away from the use of video towards a more fluid, less recognisably mediated form, camera movement is another equally characteristic stylistic element that attains an extremely refined level in Exotica. The first time that I saw The Adjuster I was struck by the meditative pace that gives the film its slow-burning strength. Certainly, in Exotica, this has as much to do with editing and the overall structure as with the motion of the camera, but the movements have to match from shot to shot and across the sequences. In an exchange of videos transcribed in the only available monograph on his work, Egoyan discussed with Paul ViriIio the camera method he has consistently applied throughout his films, 'In all my films there are very important characters, or even a central character, who is missing and I choose the camera as being the embodiment of that missing person'.1 In Exotica, the strategy has a clear application: 'The missing person is the daughter. In my earlier films it was explicit. There are actual moments when people confront the lens with the fear and anticipation with which they would regard someone they were avoiding or looking for. It was a very self-conscious device. Now I think it's in my mind when I'm choreographing a scene. Someone is watching these people going through this process, the spirit of someone who has been removed yet who is intrinsic to their happiness. Lisa was someone Christina could talk to and the first witness to Christina's abuse. I was aware when choreographing these scenes that this is Lisa watching them. Lisa has no place in Thomas' story, or even in Eric's story, but that idea of my position behind the lens is very important to me while I'm making a film, as somehow being a means of accessing someone who is not in the central drama but who binds it all together. Because there is an overall attitude to the camera as an observing force, this gives me more freedom in the editing, where I'm able to cut from one sequence to another and very often the camera is moving at the same pace. When you watch the finished result it seems extremely elegant, but it's just the result of having this consistent attitude and not, as in most films, attempting to cover the action from as many different angles as possible so that it can be moulded later on, which I find really distressing and quite savage as an approach.'

While Exotica, as Egoyan's 'breakthrough' film, should announce him to a wider audience, the director himself is fully and perhaps somewhat uncomfortably aware of its marking a transitional moment in his career. This is something attested to by Egoyan's ongoing and future projects which take place beyond and outside of cinema: 'I am working on a libretto at the moment, and two installation pieces. Of the installations, one will be in France and the other in Canada. Both deal with the 100th anniversary of cinema and will be presented next Fall. The opera is coming up for workshop in December. It's a story that I've had for about ten years. I'm at a strange stage in my own work. Over the course of the last few films I've thought that I couldn't go any further. It's strange when you get an idea and you're inspired by some story or a fragment of a narrative and you realise that you've dealt with it before. I don't know whether or not I literally have or whether it's an attitude I've assumed. Although the installations are very exciting, cinema remains my first passion. My fantasy now is that a script or an idea will come to me from someone that I can collaborate with, someone who I feel would open a door for me. It's clear that I could make a new film based on the format that I've enjoyed for the last ten years - writing, directing, producing - but I want to surprise myself. I have a tendency to be a lot more compliant and less demanding with other people's material than I am with my own ideas because I trust that that person has absorbed and defended those ideas to himself as rigorously as I would. But that isn't always the case. It's definitely a transitional time for me and a time when I can take a risk.'

1. Atom Egoyan: ed. Carole Desbarats, Editions Dis Voir, 1993

Thanks to Saho Matsumoto