Film Reviews

REVIEW: Exotica, Erotica, Etc.

Hot Docs 2015

France, 73 min.
Directed by Evangelia Kranioti
North American Premiere

Evocative of Edward Burtynsky’s grand scale landscape photography, Erotica, Exotica, Etc. is an expressionistic meditation on the sea, the men who work it, and the women who love those men. The backdrop is an enormous cargo ship journeying to 20 countries over the course of several seasons. From the opening sequence, the director establishes a cinematic atmosphere where the imagery can breathe, inviting the viewer to inhale deeply the super-oxygenated sea air and relax into the dreamy lull of memory. An extended hi-angle night shot of the ship gleaming in the moonlight amidst crashing waves blends into a montage of fragmented boat bits while a Spanish woman’s voice wistfully recounts her long ago love affairs. Vast expanse and existential musings define this doc.

Scenes of the shipmates’ daily life pepper the expressionistic interludes of water, ice, steel and sky. Against the “darkness of the sea…the beauty of night,” the sailors reflect on their chosen life; and the women, on love. Given the overlapping themes, metaphor and analogy are a-plenty: memories are like waves, “all my feelings lay there on the water.”

The one character we get to know is Sandy, a former prostitute who anchors the narrative. She embodies the Portuguese and Brazilian concept of saudade: a feeling of longing and melancholia. Waxing nostalgic for her “husbands,” the Greek sailors she loved in her youth, Sandy’s meditations are reminiscent of Heddy Honigmann’s 1996 classic O Amor Natural, where the subjects reflect on their sex lives as well as the poetry of famed Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Sandy is a voluptuous, slightly faded flower alternately gazing out to sea or clutching her pink satin pillows as if her bygone lovers were still in bed with her now.

Other than Sandy, there’s little emotional connection with the other people in the film. It’s fairly arms’ length, like the horizon in the distance. Snippets of the men’s aquatic life create a general portrait of a sailor working today. A scene in a seedy strip bar with the men on-leave reads familiar: they get drunk and sweaty; the women are fondled, sexed up and paid. The best line comes from one bordello visit where a woman’s off-camera voice confides, “Sailors are like terrorists. They arrive in ports with a bomb called love. They attack, leave and bomb…destroying hearts.”

The most visually arresting shots are devoid of either erotic or exotic tendencies: washing down the colossal interior of the cargo vessel with hoses spraying water upward of 30 feet is akin to being in a glistening, blood red cathedral of steel during a baptism. In another, a man in an orange work-suit, rubber boots and goggles trudges in a sea of salt in the hull of the ship. The B-roll of the boat is its own art form, and these particular scenes would translate swimmingly in a museum setting.

The choice of title is misleading. “Exotica” brings to mind images of a bygone era: longshoremen with Sailor Jerry tattoos and tarted up broads of the ‘50s. Either archival footage from a more “exotic” time or modern inked up, dolled up versions, all pomade and cherry red lipstick would’ve fit the bill. While the inclusion of “Etc.” works sonically, it’s a tag-on that doesn’t really make sense. Erotica, Exotica, Etc. works as an artistically crafted tone poem, but one wishes for more emotional connections and a better film title.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sat May 2, 9:30 PM
Scotiabank Theatre

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!

Noelle Elia is an artist, writer and filmmaker whose politics are based in aesthetics and emotional connection. Interested in what makes us similar rather than different, she searches for common threads as a way to get inside this never-ending question.

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