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Exotic Atom .

Johnson, Brian D .

M aclean’s. 10/3/94, Vol. 107 Issue 40, p44. 4p. 3 C olor Photographs.


M otion pictures

Exotica (Film )

N ext of Kin (Film )

512110 M otion Picture and Video Production

Egoyan, Atom , 1960-

Khanjian, Arsinée

Profiles celebrated C anadian film -m aker Atom Egoyan. H is m ovies

w hich are disturbing, dark and encoded w ith m ystery; Body of w ork

including `Exotica,’ `N ext of Kin,’ and m ore; H is partner, actress Arsinee

Khanjian; H is childhood; C areer highlights; H ow his options continue to

m ultiply.




Business Source C om plete



W ith Exotica, A tom Egoyan has becom e the m ost celebrated C anadian film -m aker of his generation

R olling up to a m ovie prem iere in a lim ousine is a fam iliar ritual. But at the recent Toronto International Film

Festival, C anadian director Atom Egoyan elected to w alk to the N orth Am erican prem iere of his new m ovie,

Exotica. Egoyan knew that refusing a lim o could seem as pretentious as accepting one–but he had taken the

luxury route tw o nights earlier w ith absurd results. After the festival’s opening-night party, he and his partner,

actress Arsinee Khanjian, found them selves ushered into a preposterously long stretch lim o. “I w as ready to

jum p into a cab,” recalls the film -m aker, but his handlers at Alliance R eleasing “had insisted w e ride around in

these lim os.” H e directed the chauffeur to R iverdale, on the eastern edge of dow ntow n, w here Egoyan,

Khanjian and their one-year-old son, Arshile, share a m odest sem i-detached house on a narrow little street–so

narrow that the driver could not get around the corner. “H e spent 15 m inutes trying to negotiate the turn,”

Egoyan laughs. “You could see the dism ay in the driver’s face. H e started to think m aybe he’d taken the w rong

people hom e.”

It w as an Egoyanesque m om ent, the kind of bizarre incident that could be a prem ise for one of his m ovies–a

lim o driver and a m oviem aker go through the m otions of a ritual neither believes in. O ne w ay or the other,

Egoyan’s film s are all about ritual. They are stories of separation and loss, featuring characters w ith strangely

fetishized occupations. In Speaking Parts, a hotel cham berm aid is infatuated w ith a co-w orker w ho m oonlights

as an extra in B-m ovies. In The Adjuster, a fire-insurance claim s investigator provides his dispossessed clients

w ith sexual solace. And in Exotica, a young stripper does therapeutic table-dancing for a tax auditor m ourning

his daughter. 1/4/2020 AC Launch … 2/6

Egoyan’s m ovies are dark, disturbing and encoded w ith m ystery. H is tautly controlled visions of alienation can

seem exquisite or excruciating. But over the course of his 10-year career, after w riting and directing six

features, Egoyan has created a unique body of w ork. H is film s do not look like anyone else’s. The 34-year-old

director, w ho w as born in C airo to Arm enian parents and raised in Victoria, B.C ., is now the m ost celebrated

C anadian film -m aker of his generation. Last M ay, Exotica becam e the first English-C anadian film in 10 years to

be accepted for official com petition at the C annes Film Festival, w here it w on the prestigious International

C ritics’ Aw ard. And at the Toronto festival, Egoyan w on the annual prize for best C anadian film for the third

tim e.

A favorite at film festivals around the w orld, Egoyan has a serious follow ing in Europe–a G erm an TV crew just

finished film ing a one-hour docum entary about him . N ow, his appeal is broadening. W ith each of his m ovies, he

has gradually expanded his budget and his audience. Even before opening com m ercially, Exotica has

recouped its $2-m illion cost w ith sales to distributors. In the U nited States, it w as picked up by the D isney-

ow ned M iram ax Film s. And H ollyw ood scripts are regularly show ing up in Egoyan’s m ail. “H is star is definitely

ascending,” says fellow C anadian director D avid C ronenberg (The Fly, N aked Lunch). “H e has a w orld of

possibilities opening up to him .”

C ronenberg, w hom Egoyan considers his m entor, recognizes som e parallels in their w ork. “There’s a dry

intellectual hum or coupled w ith a m ischievous sexuality,” says C ronenberg. “I think w e both have that, a

cerebral approach w ith som e earthiness–the lascivious professor.” And, just as C ronenberg has turned dow n

offers to direct the likes of Tom C ruise, Egoyan seem s determ ined to pursue his ow n vision. Both directors

m ake m ovies that “get under your skin” says Am erican film -m aker Q uentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, R eservoir

D ogs). “But w hile everyone talks about the voyeurism and creepy feeling in Atom ‘s film s, they forget that he’s

a really great storyteller.”

Saturday m orning. D ressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, Egoyan serves black coffee in his kitchen,

apologizing for the lack of m ilk. The house is a slim three-storey affair, renovated by the previous ow ner–its

oddest feature being an undulating pine banister that ends in the form of a bird’s beak. There are various

artw orks about the place, including one by each of his parents, and a N ew M exican painting bequeathed to him

by the late Jay Scott, The G lobe and M ail film critic w ho helped put Egoyan on the m ap.

Sitting dow n at a patio table in the sm all, fenced-in yard, Egoyan reflects on his latest dealings w ith the

M iram ax publicity m achine. “They are telling m e there are certain phrases I shouldn’t use in interview s,” he

says. “They don’t like m e talking about `ritual.’ They w ould prefer I talk about `gam e-playing.’ ” The director

seem s m ore am used than offended by the attem pt to doctor his im age. “M aybe I should do everything they

suggest,” he says, only half joking. “I’d be curious to see if it m akes a difference.”

W hile Egoyan’s film s tend to be chilling, herm etic and austere, the director com es across as a w arm , genial

presence, w ith an eager sense of hum or. For an artist w ho has achieved such acclaim so soon, he rem ains

gracefully m odest and dow n-to-earth. “I’ve been very lucky to m ake m y living at w hat I do,” he declares.

“Arsinee and I are new C anadians, and w e are extraordinarily appreciative of the opportunity to m ake film s in

this country that couldn’t be m ade anyw here else.”

Arsinee Khanjian has been Egoyan’s partner in life and art ever since he cast her in his first feature, N ext of

Kin, 10 years ago. And she plays a crucial role in his career. The 36-year-old actress, an Arm enian w ho

im m igrated from Lebanon at the age of 17 and speaks five languages, has appeared in all of his m ovies. But

she also serves as his artistic foil, questioning his decisions at every turn. Although her screen characters are 1/4/2020 AC Launch … 3/6

often eerily restrained, offscreen she is convivial and exuberant. Together, they m ake a striking couple–their

faces form ing a sym m etry of bold eyebrow s and seductive sm iles.

The relationship, how ever, seem s fuelled by creative friction. Their closest friend, producer N iv Fichm an, says

it is “probably the m ost volatile and tem pestuous relationship I’ve ever experienced, and yet the m ost true. H e

know s he has her support, but there are so m any eruptions and tests that she puts him through. And that gives

him such confidence because he know s that he’s had to go through the w ringer to m ake a decision.” Egoyan

concurs. “It’s not a rom antic process m aking m ovies together, not at all,” he says. “It’s fraught w ith tension

and anxiety. But that chem istry creates som ething interesting w hen it w orks w ell.”

Egoyan and Khanjian underw ent an unusually difficult ordeal in m aking Exotica. By the tim e they w ere shooting

the film , during a July heat w ave in 1993, Khanjian w as seven m onths pregnant w ith Arshile. Egoyan had

w ritten the script before learning he w as to be a father. H ad he know n, he doubts he w ould have w ritten it.

The story revolves around a father’s ritualistic grief over the death of his young daughter. A tax auditor nam ed

Francis (Bruce G reenw ood) frequents a striptease em porium called Exotica, w here C hristina (M ia Kirshner), a

dancer tricked out like a schoolgirl in a tartan skirt, perform s at his table. Francis is a voyeur w ho just w ants to

talk. And during his evenings at the club, he hires his niece (Sarah Polley) to “babysit” an em pty house. W ith

lam bent flashbacks to a search party com bing for a body in a sunlit field, layers of m ystery are gradually

stripped aw ay. “It w as such a perverse film for a new parent to have m ade,” acknow ledges Egoyan, w ho now

has a babysitter of his ow n. “But it w asn’t conceived that w ay.”

Khanjian’s pregnancy w as incorporated into the script. She plays Zoe, Exotica’s enigm atic ow ner, w ho is

involved in a tense triangle w ith its em cee (Elias Koteas) and the schoolgirl stripper. A deadpan D on M cKellar

plays Thom as, a pet-store ow ner w ho sm uggles exotic anim als and gets investigated by the auditor. Khanjian

says that she and Egoyan w ere first thrilled by the w ay her pregnancy enriched the story–“W e thought it w ould

be a great m etaphor, the w ay you inherit life and pass it on.” Zoe and Thom as both inherited establishm ents

from parents. And Egoyan, leaving no sym bol unturned, points out that Thom as’s act of sm uggling eggs by

taping them to his stom ach is a kind of artificial pregnancy.

But the idea w as m ore fun than the execution. “It w as very disturbing,” says Khanjian. “I w as going through

those incredible m om ents of doubt and need for com plete attention. And here w as this guy w ho every day w as

going on the set to direct w hat seem ed to be a very perverse environm ent. I realized how m uch parents can

becom e com pletely conservative. Suddenly, I w as thinking, `O h m y G od, w e are both parents for this child.

W hat are w e going to pass on to him ? Is this the w orld w e are introducing him to?’ ”

Egoyan’s parents, Joseph and Shushan, em igrated from C airo w hen he w as three. Settling in Victoria, they

changed their nam e from Yeghoyan to the m ore pronounceable Egoyan. Atom , nam ed in honor of atom ic

energy, disliked being called that w hen he w as grow ing up. And it did not help that his younger sister (now a

concert pianist in Toronto) w as nam ed Eve–Atom and Eve jokes soon w ore thin.

As a child, Egoyan w orked hard to assim ilate, refusing to speak Arm enian at hom e and covering his ears w hen

his parents spoke it. Although they m ade their living w ith a sm all furniture store, both had set out w ith artistic

am bitions. H is m other had a painting accepted by the N ational G allery of Arm enia. H is father had attended the

C hicago Art Institute as a 16-year-old prodigy. But “he didn’t really stick it out,” says Egoyan, w ho w as 10

w hen his father staged his last m ajor show. “They gave him the w hole second floor of the provincial m useum

in Victoria, and his show w as just im ages of dead birds–it did not go over w ell. The year before, our house w as

full of dead birds hanging by strings from the w alls and ceiling, birds he’d collected on the beach, dead sea 1/4/2020 AC Launch … 4/6

gulls and stuff. H e w ould pose them around the house and paint them .” Adds the director: “I think I had a very

early exposure to a very excessive m entality.”

Egoyan says his parents had “a volatile relationship, and I saw the pain they felt in not being able to do w hat

they w anted as artists.” H e appeared determ ined not to suffer the sam e fate. At 12, for a C hristm as pageant

skit, Egoyan set up a cam era onstage and asked the audience to sm ile. “I rem em ber everyone being

stunned,” he recalls. “It w as a w onderful m om ent for m e, feeling the pow er to undercut people’s expectations.”

From the age of 13, Egoyan w rote plays, soaking up influences from such w riters as Eugene Ionesco, Sam uel

Beckett and H arold Pinter. Later, after enrolling as an arts undergraduate at the U niversity of Toronto’s Trinity

C ollege, he began to m ake short film s. And by the age of 23, he w as shooting his first feature, N ext of Kin–the

tale of a bored 23-year-old w ho abandons his quarrelling W ASP parents and m asquerades as the long-lost son

of an Arm enian couple in Toronto. D irected w ith startling assurance, N ext of Kin contains all the basic threads

that w ould distinguish his later w ork: the them e of fam ily loss, the use of videotaped m em ories as a narrative

device and the sense that the cam era is conducting surveillance.

The m ovie also introduced Atom to Arsinee. W hile casting, he show ed up at a rehearsal for an Arm enian play

in M ontreal. Khanjian and her husband of tw o years, an Arm enian dental student, w ere both perform ing.

“Atom arrived in this beige tw eed suit, w ith a nice tie and rim less glasses,” the actress recalls. “The m om ent I

saw him I thought, `M y G od, if I had any ideal m an in m ind, this is it.’ ” Egoyan says he had a sim ilar response:

“I had this shining im age of an Arm enian princess–I used to joke w ith m y room m ate about it–and w hen I

found her I w as sure she w as that person.”

They did not m eet until the next night, w hen Khanjian and her husband saw Egoyan at another play. Khanjian

w anted to ignore him , but her husband insisted on going over to introduce him self. H e then sum m oned his

w ife, w ho blushed in em barrassm ent as he persuaded Egoyan to audition her for N ext of Kin. The director

gave her a role, and during the film ing they began an affair that w ould end her m arriage. “M y parents w ere

m ortified,” she says. “I had a high-bourgeois life w aiting for m e, and here I w as going off w ith this guy w ho had

no obvious future.”

N ext of Kin w as virtually ignored, w hich left Egoyan dem oralized as he struggled to m ake ends m eet, w orking

for $5 an hour as a porter at the U of T’s M assey C ollege. But after gaining som e experience as a TV director,

he m ade his second feature, Fam ily View ing (1987). The protagonist is an 18-year-old boy. H e discovers that

his father (D avid H em blen), w ho is estranged from the boy’s Arm enian m other, has been taping over the

fam ily’s hom e videos w ith scenes of him self having sex w ith his m istress.

Egoyan still considers Fam ily View ing the film closest to his heart, and at film festivals around the w orld it

established his reputation. Tw o years before Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, Fam ily View ing

explored video as a literal m etaphor for distressed, disem bodied m em ory. Egoyan stretched the idea even

further in Speaking Parts, w hich featured video-linked phone sex and a m ausoleum w ith video im ages of the

deceased. The story takes place in a hotel, w ith Khanjian playing a cham berm aid. (As a teenager, Egoyan

him self spent four sum m ers w orking in a hotel in Victoria.) Speaking Parts had a hot debut in C annes: the third

reel burst into flam es. But the audience sat through the 40-m inute delay, and the m ovie received w arm praise

from critics. “For som eone just turning 30,” w rote G eorgia Brow n of The Village Voice, “Atom Egoyan m ay be

unforgivably sophisticated. H is ideas about sex, lies and you-know -w hat m ake Steven Soderbergh look like a

naive schoolboy.” 1/4/2020 AC Launch … 5/6

W ith its narcotic pacing and deliberately stilted acting style, Speaking Parts could also seem unforgivably

precious. But in his next m ovie, The Adjuster (1991), Egoyan grafted his otherw orldly vision onto strong,

naturalistic perform ances–by Elias Koteas as a fire-insurance adjuster w ho beds his clients, Khanjian as his

film -censor w ife and M aury C haykin as an ex-football player w ith a dem ented fantasy life. O nce again, Egoyan

found the spark for the script close to hom e–a fire that destroyed his parents’ furniture store on N ew Year’s Eve

in 1989.

For his fifth feature, the director dow nshifted to an intim ate, low -budget experim ent called C alendar (1993).

W orking both sides of the cam era, Egoyan played a photographer w ho travels to Arm enia to take calendar

pictures of churches, and w hose w ife (Khanjian) leaves him for their tour guide. A sim ulated hom e m ovie,

C alendar appealed to a narrow art-house audience. But its w itty blend of postm odern form alism and unscripted

cinem a verite delighted critics.

By contrast, Exotica is Egoyan’s m ost stylish, am bitious and broadly appealing w ork to date. W ith its haunting

M iddle Eastern score and aquarium -cool im ages, it casts a hypnotic spell that is sustained from beginning to

end. All the perform ances seem tuned to the sam e w eird w avelength. “I w onder how that happens,” m uses

M cKellar, w ho acted in both Exotica and The Adjuster, “because Atom never told m e to act in an Atom Egoyan


D espite its dangerous prem ise, w hich is based on a confusion betw een the babysitter and the babe-stripper,

Exotica is so brilliantly controlled that it never seem s prurient. Egoyan dissects the paradox of table-dancing–

an intim ate act in a public place–w ithout exploitation or m oralism .

Khanjian, m eanw hile, seem s rem arkably sanguine about her partner’s choice of m aterial. “I’ve never felt

uncom fortable w ith Atom ‘s portrayal of sexuality,” she says. “It probably fulfils m y ow n hidden fantasies, G od

know s.” But she does have her criticism s of his w ork. “I get annoyed som etim es by the fact that he is very

suspicious of expressing em otions in an overt w ay,” she says. “It took m e a long tim e to realize that it w as not

a gim m ick, because he’s incredibly em otional in real life.” But the m ost contentious issue betw een them , she

adds, is the role of w om en in his w ork. “I find his m ovies very m ale-psyche. I’m not saying m acho or

m isogynist–he uses a lot of androgyny. But he channels his subtleties through the m ale characters. The fem ale

characters are very condensed.”

Still, Khanjian offers her partner w holehearted support. Although she recently took a role as a doctor’s w ife in

C BC -TV’s new series Side Effects, she suggests that she w ould put her career on hold for him if necessary. “It

sounds tacky,” she says, “but I’m going to be there for him if I can be of any use.” Then she adds: “I get

scared for him som etim es. H e’s very sm art, and he has his head on his shoulders, but this is a profession

w here people love turning you into a god, then crucifying that god.”

In fact, Egoyan seem s to be conducting his career w ith suprem e caution. As the senior producer on all his

m ovies, he has a reputation for finishing them on tim e and under budget. O ther film -m akers envy the steady

support he has received from governm ent funding agencies such as Telefilm C anada. But his skill behind the

cam era m akes a $2-m illion m ovie look like $10 m illion. And Alliance chairm an R obert Lantos, w ho co-financed

Exotica, says its budget could have been larger if Egoyan had w anted it–“he has a very strong sense of fiscal


N ow that there is m ounting pressure for Egoyan to go m ainstream , Lantos says that “m aking a m ovie that

som eone else could m ake could be dam aging to his career.” Egoyan agrees: “The biggest m yth in this

industry is that you should go out and m ake your big com m ercial m ovie so you can do w hat you really w ant. It 1/4/2020 AC Launch … 6/6

never w orks.” The one tim e Egoyan did direct a m ovie that he did not w rite–C BC -TV’s G ross M isconduct

(1992), about hockey player Brian Spencer–he seem ed to lose his bearings. Although he says he is proud of it

and loved m aking it, G ross M isconduct is uncharacteristically lurid and incoherent.

N ow, Egoyan’s options continue to m ultiply. H e receives a lot of Am erican scripts, typically dysfunctional fam ily

dram as and quirky sci-fi thrillers. “I get confused,” he says, “because I have the option at any tim e of just

crossing over. The fact that I’m even courting it m akes Arsinee unsure.” Film ing his ow n m aterial has becom e

“addictive,” he adds. “There’s a child-like thrill in being able to tell these dark fables that com e from the

deepest recesses of your im agination and project them in full theatres. It seem s unreal. That’s w hat Arsinee

gets upset about–that lately I’ve been taking it for granted.”

At the Toronto festival, a full theatre aw aits the prem iere of Exotica. Egoyan, Khanjian and Lantos stand near

the stage w ith the director’s father, an elegant m an dressed all in black w ho looks like Leonard C ohen. Joseph

Egoyan has m ade a special request to m eet Lantos, the m oney m an. “Art w ithout business, you can forget it,”

he tells the Alliance president as they are introduced. “Atom is an astute businessm an,” Lantos replies. “H e

learned that from m e,” proclaim s Joseph w ith a grin.

Egoyan is called to the stage. H e confesses that he is m ore nervous than he w as at C annes, thanks everyone

he can think of, then sits dow n to w atch his m ovie one m ore tim e. At the closing credits, the audience breaks

the m ovie’s spell w ith generous applause, and Egoyan takes the stage to field questions, w orking the crow d

w ith w it and charm . The first question is breathtakingly erudite, a m ini-thesis about editing and m em ory.

Som eone else inquires about the etiquette of clients touching table dancers. Then, a m an stands up to say he

w as rem inded of M ichelangelo’s painting in the Sistine C hapel–“hands touching but not touching.” The

director does a double take. This is too m uch, even for him . “Yes, thank you, M ichelangelo!” he quips, draw ing

laughter from the audience. And for a m om ent, Atom Egoyan seem s to have found a place for him self in show


Photo: Egoyan w ith Khanjian and Arshile: partners in life and art

Photo: Exotica: casting a hypnotic spell, encoded w ith m ystery

Photo: C alendar: dark, disturbing film s that `get under your skin’


By Brian D . Johnson

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