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This Director's Got a Brand Noir Bag

March 12, 1995|Kristine McKenna

'People often describe my work as cold and clinical, but I just can't see it that way--to me it's about nothing but emotion," says Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan.

"True, the people in my films often try to deny their emotions and usually have a hard time understanding what they're feeling. Nonetheless, the emotions are always bubbling away in there at an almost operatic level."

The reason critics often describe Egoyan's work as cold could have something to do with the tendency in his films for the "operatic" emotions to implode rather than explode--and the fact that the media are usually positioned as central characters in his narratives.

From his 1984 feature debut, "Next of Kin," to his recently released sixth film, "Exotica," Egoyan has looked with a cool eye at our willingness to hand the reigns of our consciousness over to technology and at the barrage of images that have invaded human experience.

Those ideas are percolating away in "Exotica," but the film is a departure in other ways. Egoyan's works have always been provocative--and "Exotica" doesn't disappoint on that score--but he has never made such a nakedly emotional film before. The story, revolving around the relationship between a stripper (Mia Kirshner) and one of the patrons of the club where she works (Bruce Greenwood), blossoms into a multilayered tale chronicling various experiences of loss, betrayal and obsession.

More than anything, however, "Exotica" is a meditation on the mysteriousness of the connections between people and how powerful those connections can be.

"Exotica"--which also stars Elias Koteas, Arsinee Khanjian and Don McKellar--marks another change for Egoyan in that his previous works eschewed linear narrative in favor of a highly fragmented approach to storytelling. The new film is loosely structured as a conventional thriller.

"I've been heavily influenced by thrillers, and if I was to associate myself with any genre, that's the one it would be," the 35-year-old director says during a meeting at the Westwood hotel where he is staying with Khanjian, who is his wife and the star of all his films, and their infant son.

"And as with a thriller, 'Exotica' comes together like a puzzle and only works if you trust what the filmmaker's up to. If you watch it suspiciously and worry that you're not 'getting it,' it begins to slip into the distance.

"People tend to discuss my films in terms of theory, but I'm not a theorist--my stories are told to communicate emotions," Egoyan says in explaining the change of direction in his work.

"It's true that ideas about media, realities once removed and surrogates have been central to my films, but I never intended to address those themes in purely theoretical terms. I was beginning to feel that my stories were revolving to too large a degree around technology, so the challenge with 'Exotica' was to show that the need to behave in certain ways is deep within us, and we act it out with or without technology."

A theme that Egoyan has turned to repeatedly is the relationship between technology, the fantasies it gives rise to and sexuality. In "Exotica," this idea is central.

"For most people, I think sex resides more in fantasy and in the imagination than in the body," Egoyan says. "Ideally the two should obviously be in sync, but we're surrounded by such a plethora of images that we're almost taught to be as satisfied with images of people.

"Ironically, the central relationship in 'Exotica' isn't very sexual at all, even though on a superficial level that appears to be the only thing it's about. In fact, this is a story about a man who becomes involved in an odd ritual that began as a healing process but has degenerated into something quite tormenting.

"I had this amazing screening of 'Exotica' for the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society, and I learned several fascinating things," says Egoyan, who lives in Toronto. "First, they assured me that the kind of relationship that's central to the film definitely exists in real life.

"They also told me that all my films deal with a process known as 'faulty mourning,' which is a Freudian term referring to the phenomenon of people who are in the process of mourning and think they're dealing with their loss, but the means they've devised to deal with it actually exaggerates the loss and leaves them addicted to the process of mourning. Why would anyone choose to behave in this way? Because it's a project. People look for a project in their lives, and the project of trying to come to terms with unhappiness is quite consuming."

Invariably, the characters in Egoyan's films are struggling to come to terms with unhappiness--a fact that's rather curious considering that Egoyan seems to have led something of a charmed life.

Egoyan, who was named after the atom, was born in Cairo to Armenian parents in 1960 and raised in Victoria, British Columbia.

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