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"SASSY" Chrissy walks into the fish tank lighting of the strip club called Exotica dressed in a schoolgirl kilt, schoolgirl kneesox and schoolgirl blouse. As a Leonard Cohen song plays, she bumps and grinds a little and flashes some lovely posterior skin. The emcee, in his aerie above the Toronto club amid piles of CDs and a ready bottle of Jack Daniels, leers into his microphone, "What is it about a schoolgirl that gives her that special innocence?"

That it is also a real question and not just a come-on for the tourists and lonelyguys who frequent the club is what Atom Egoyan's thrill-less and wildly praised movie "Exotica" is about.

I don't get it. Really. There is a large number of critics -- including the Village Voice's estimable J. Hoberman -- who declare "Exotica" the independent film of the season. Obviously, there is something going on in this movie that I'm not able to see (in the same way that I can't hear the pitch of dog whistles either.)

It's certainly not boring. And it's erotic enough, though not nearly as erotic as it rather smugly thinks itself to be. And its ending, where we discover that none of the creepy sexual obsession we've been watching is quite what we think it is, is a human revelation so coldly -- and, yes, smugly -- worked out that it's more of a stunt than it is an emotional climax.

It's a movie that purports to tell you something about the dark places of the human heart but winds up Onanizing the brain, which isn't the same thing at all. "Love is strange" is what it seems to want to tell us at its best, in a self-consciously strange way, but mostly what it tells us is that the easiest way for a filmmaker to win a serious reputation is to put some clever and eerily photographed ideas for movies -- and everything else -- on screen without going to the trouble of actually making a movie. (Blame Godard for this, if you want.)

Two stories intertwine in "Exotica." An anguished tax auditor (Bruce Greenwood) goes to the strip club nightly to spend $5 (only $5? No, I'm not making that up) and buy a few minutes of Chrissy (Mia Kershner) stripping at his table, writhing around him and nuzzling while he observes the strict "look but don't touch" rules of the club. "How could anyone hurt you?" is his ritual sick response to all this.

Undoubtedly people who have seen too many movies look at "Exotica" and say, "Oh, but isn't it a metaphor for all of us -- looking but not touching," etc. Like I said, clever ideas about movies rather than movies themselves.

The other story is about a gay pet shop owner who illegally imports rare eggs and picks up other men at the opera by selling them a ticket to the adjoining seat. The stories mix and mingle cleverly and come together at the end for the final revelation -- which is, I suppose, where the notion that it's a thriller comes from.

It's chilly but not chilly enough. While it's all so carefully worked out, the individual scenes are self-conscious, misshapen and often very clumsy. Compared to the icy clockwork precision of something like "Shallow Grave" (where every scene seems to be of perfect length), "Exotica" looks like the work of an astute graduate student.

Its point is the exculpatory one that some people seem to need so desperately from film -- that sexual anguish is really human anguish and infinitely forgivable in a world of liberal compassion.

If film is seen as scripture -- the place to go for wisdom and moral instruction -- "Exotica" may be highly prized as a little treasure. If, on the other hand, film is the great art form of the century, "Exotica" may look like a clever, sexy, entertaining but empty student exercise.

Rating: *** 1/2
Erotic fantasy bt Atom Egoyan about strip clubs and guilt. Starring Bruce Greenwood and Mia Kershner.
Rated R, opening today in area movie theaters.

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