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The most talented young filmmaker in Canada may never attract mass audiences, but he gets under the skin in ways almost no one else can.

If you've seen Atom Egoyan's Speaking Parts or The Adjustor, you know his territory is a psychosexual mindscape where people act out personal rituals, where thoughts are suffused with melancholy and odd wit, and where the relationships between characters are ambiguous until many puzzle pieces finally fall together in beautiful array.

Exotica is Egoyan's sixth and most accomplished feature, and it could be the one that gets him out of the film festivals and into the art houses. For the most part, this complex riddle of desire unfolds within a high-toned Toronto strip club, a mock Garden of Eden where female dancers and rapt male patrons conduct what appear to be the usual transactions of erotic fantasy.

But in Egoyan's work, surfaces always conceal. For Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a glum tax accountant who spends every other evening in the club, the appeal of young Christina (Mia Kirshner), whose onstage persona is that of an innocent schoolgirl, proves far more profound than mere kinkiness. Zoe (Arsinee Khanjian), the pregnant owner who's inherited the club from her mother, and Eric (Elias Koteas), the sneering, self-conscious emcee, have secrets of their own--but not the kind we can guess at. This world of ritualized play-acting and substitute emotion is a hall of mirrors, but loss and desire are painfully real. Consider Thomas (Don McKellar), a fidgeting smuggler of tropical birds' eggs who has inherited a run-down pet shop from his father. He goes to the ballet each night with an extra ticket, in search of ever more exotic companions.

Egoyan's serpentine plot involves murder, blackmail, deceit and grief, but we untangle all that--along with the psychological echoes and interconnections of these troubled souls--only with effort, and only with time. For most of Exotica's length, the film's obsessions with innocence and shame, parents and children, realities and illusions, are no more than translucent, like the murky green water in Thomas's aquariums.

Slowly but resolutely, though, Egoyan draws back veil after veil of sensuous mystery. In the end we discover not pornography but tragedy.

The difficult and fascinating work of this 35-year-old is not for everyone, but for those as interested in grappling with the mysteries of narrative as with the spookiness of human behavior, the rewards could hardly be greater. Not all filmmakers dare work the high wire above the crowd, but Atom Egoyan seems to have found his footing.

 
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