There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Even if it earns no more U.S. dollars than its little-seen predecessors, Exotica qualifies as Atom Egoyan’s breakthrough film. Not merely the Armenian-Canadian writer/director’s most lushly realized project, it’s also the one in which his traditional concerns—voyeurism, fetishism, and, yes, family—finally attain some emotional resonance.
That doesn’t mean that Exotica is a Hollywood-style sentiment-athon. It’s still rather chilly, and viewers unfamiliar with such previous Egoyan films as The Adjuster and Calendar may have difficulty imagining that his earlier work was even colder. But there is genuine humanity kicking beneath the film’s intricate narrative and thematic strategies, and not just in the belly of the director’s pregnant wife, Arsinée Khanjian, who plays Zoe, proprietor of the Toronto strip club that gives the film its name.
Exotica‘s story (or stories) begins not at the club but at Toronto Airport, where timid pet-shop owner Thomas (actor/writer Don McKellar, whose script credits include 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould) is returning from an overseas trip. In a sense, though, we’re already at the club: Thomas is being observed by customs agents through a one-way mirror, a feature of Exotica as well, and thus is just as much an object of scrutiny as the club’s dancers. It will be late in the movie before Thomas actually enters Exotica, but we’re already there, watching one of the players through the glass that is an essential motif.
At the mock-tropical Exotica, rendered additionally humid by Mychael Danna’s mock-Indian music, more subjects and objects are introduced: Eric (The Adjuster‘s Elias Koteas) is the club’s announc er, who resentfully watches the customers watching his former lover Christina (Mia Kirshner) doing a “naughty schoolgirl” act in a Catholic-school uniform to the implausible strains of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” One of the men who regularly hires Christina for the public intimacy of a “table dance” is Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a tax auditor still suffering from an initially unexplained family tragedy. Christina is just half of Francis’ therapy team; he also employs Tracey (Sarah Polley) to baby-sit while he attends the club, though the most important part of her job seems to be talking to him as he drives her home. (This therapeutic ritual parallels one in Calendar.)
Francis is a tax auditor, which makes him privy to financial rather than erotic intrigues, and he’s assigned to Thomas, who has reason to worry. The pet-shop owner is a smuggler of exotic bird eggs, which is just one of his parallels with Zoe: He too harbors precious unborn cargo, keeps exotic beauties behind glass, and is trying to make a go of a family firm. (He inherited his business from his father, while Zoe got hers from her mother.) Like Francis, Thomas too has his ritual.
Meanwhile, the flashbacks to Eric and Christina’s first encounter, which occurred as a group of volunteers searched for a child, add violence to the film’s list of secrets to be revealed. Eventually, almost all the characters must meet—and not necessarily for the first time.
Characteristically for Egoyan, Exotica teases with primal pleasures—all those nude and near-nude dancers—but finds its deepest delight in its own cerebral design. In its final scenes, the film totes up emotional revelations and unleashes physical confrontations, yet the face-off between Francis and Eric that threatens to explode instead fizzles. Their complex machinations end not in cathartic anger but in quiet empathy.
Though it gradually discloses the various bonds between Francis, Christina, and the rest, Exotica doesn’t conclude with tidy emotional resolutions. Perhaps Zoe is speaking for the director—the central voyeur in this as in all his films—when she explains that “We’re here to entertain, not to heal.” Or perhaps nothing that can possibly happen here is as vital as what’s already transpired. Despite the film’s thematic and stylistic voluptuousness, its central feelings are sadness and loss. In this, Egoyan has finally arrived at an emotional motive for his look-don’t-touch view of the world: Exotica‘s characters just gape because everything worth embracing is already gone.
Bearing bad tidings from the Balkans, Before the Rain packs a lot of true-life power; its striking Macedonian locations both give the film a potent sense of place and put it in the orbit of Bosnia’s horrors. Yet the debut of writer/director Milcho Manchevski, a Manhattan-based Macedonian with a background in music videos, is neither a realistic nor a particularly political film. Far from docudrama, Rain‘s elegantly contrived schema suggests Resnais, Kieslowski, Tarantino, even Egoyan.
Like Exotica, the Oscar-nominated Rain takes great formal pleasure in interweaving narrative threads. Those threads never quite connect, however. (“The circle is not round,” a minor character eventually reveals.) The chronology of the film’s three chapters doesn’t actually add up, and both narrative trickery and thematic sweep distance Rain from actual events; though the nightmares of Bosnia are invoked, they’re never depicted. Instead, the film’s horrors are set in Macedonia, one of the relatively peaceful splinters of the former Yugoslavia, and in London, in a sequence that reaches out bloodily to the West (and the large English-speaking cinema audience).
The three chapters are titled, with terse portentousness, “Words,” “Faces,” and “Pictures.” In the first, a young Macedonian monk who has taken a vow of silence, Kiril (Olivier, Olivier‘s Gregoire Colin), discovers a teen-age girl hiding in his cell. A member of the country’s Albanian Muslim minority, Zamira (Labina Mitevska) seems to have killed a Macedonian farmer, although it’s not clear why. Kiril tries to protect her from the ad hoc Macedonian militia searching for her, but when the monastery’s elders find out, both Kiril and Zamira are evicted.
The action then switches to London, where photo editor Anne (Naked‘s Katrin Cartlidge) has just discovered she’s pregnant by her lover, an impulsive war photographer whose wild worldliness is conveyed by his flowing, gray-streaked hair and beard. As Anne is attempting to choose between Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija) and her stable but dull husband, the photographer returns unexpectedly from Bosnia. Having decided he’s become complicit in the crimes he records, Aleksander announces plans to return to his native Macedonia, and asks Anne to join him. He leaves without her and she joins her husband for dinner at a restaurant that proves to be no better insulated from Balkan hatreds than the monastery.
At home in the final installment, Aleksander discovers that the divide between Macedonian and Albanian has grown, and that his town is now patrolled by dimwitted young men with machine guns—the ragtag militia of the first episode on one side, its Albanian Muslim counterpart on the other. (When Aleksander goes to visit an old girlfriend, an Albanian, the woman’s son threatens to slit his throat.) Manchevski fills in many of the blanks here, reintroducing and expanding the circumstances and characters of the initial chapter. Like Kiril, Aleksander has to opt between siding with his peers or risking his position and even life for wider humanitarian principles.
Each chapter ends with senseless death, which the director foreshadows with disturbing scenes of small animals being tortured and killed. Such brutalities would be easier to credit if Manchevski’s style weren’t so mannered. Though his concerns are rooted in the reality of contemporary Bosnia, in transplanting them to Macedonia and London he abstracts them, while the film’s elaborate, archly playful structure is more appropriate to cinematic tricksters like Kieslowski and Tarantino than to a director seeking current-events immediacy. Manchevski can hardly evoke the terrors of the God-is-dead world when his own manipulation of his characters is so Godlike.
Still, it’s a testament to Manchevski’s skill that Rain is only occasionally ridiculous. The director’s quest for narrative order does lead to leadenly schematic moments, notably the ones in which various dying or grieving characters echo the name of the film or one of its chapters. The director recovers quickly, though, with the significant aid of cinematographer Manuel Teran and the evocative score, produced by a group called Anastasia. (Despite his music-vid background, Manchevski only overwhelms the film with music once, in a London sequence set to mock-Balkan popster Lene Lovich’s “Home.”) Rain‘s raw theme and polished style are not ideally matched, but their combination is more often effective than anomalous.
For the Johnstones and the Ettingers, mother didn’t know best. “It’s really frightening…to be a young parent,” confides Mrs. Ettinger in Martha & Ethel, a film produced by a daughter from each family, actress Jyll Johnstone (who also directed) and photographer Barbara Ettinger. “You can’t do it by yourself,” she says, “you’ll have a nervous breakdown.” That’s why these two Connecticut clans, more than 40 years ago, hired nannies to take care of their baby-boom broods (five little Johnstones, six little Ettingers). Those nannies—German expatriate Martha Kniefel and African-American Ethel Edwards—are the nominal subject of this documentary, which is almost as fascinating for what it hides as for what it reveals.
When Johnstone appeared at the Key Sunday Cinema Club screening of her film, she argued thatM&E‘s portrait of the mothers is sympathetic. You may agree, but I doubt it. Indeed, it can be argued that the mothers’ distance from their children is the film’s essential subject. (The fathers are distant too, but they barely figure in the tale.) After all, the grown children are protective not only of Ethel, a warm presence who’s the film’s star, but also of the once-tyrannical Martha, who was trained in the Teutonic style of child-rearing. (Among its precepts was, she recalls, “the child’s will must be broken as soon as possible.”) Both mothers express their distaste for full-time parenting—the Johnstones, their mother shudders, were “little hellions”—but it’s clear that they lost their place in the family as the result of hiring nannies.
In various anecdotes, the kids recall their confusion at the arrangement. The Ettingers in particular were shocked to discover such things as that Ethel wasn’t actually a family member, and that she got paid to take care of them. While recording this commentary, the filmmakers don’t seem to take it all that seriously; “following World War II,” the press kit reports, “a generation of women willingly relinquished their mothering responsibilities to hired women.” If Johnstone and Ettinger are aware that their society-ball-going moms were not typical of their generation, their film never quite admits it.
It’s hard, in fact, to tell whenM&E is being subtle and when it’s merely being guarded. Johnstone admits the project has led to some disagreements in her family, and told the Key audience that “I don’t think I could have done this film without the support of my therapist.” As if to distract from the reticent families, both Martha (who died late last year) and Ethel (who still lives with the now-divorced Mrs. Ettinger) are taken on trips home, Martha to Baden-Baden, Ethel to South Carolina.
Away from the families that employed them for so long, though, Ethel and Martha (somewhat mellowed in her retirement) are just nice old ladies. They only come into full relief when contrasted with the mothers, whether the tight-lipped Mrs. Johnstone or the more gregarious Mrs. Ettinger. They couldn’t have lived their lives without Martha and Ethel, and Martha & Ethel would not be nearly so memorable if the nannies’ self-assured (but much different) styles weren’t contrasted with the still-tentative emotions of the women who hired them.