The story concerns a father grieving over the loss of a child and obsessed with a young stripper. It was inspired by Egoyan's curiosity by the role strip clubs play in sex-obsessed societies, and rules at the time forbidding clients from touching dancers. Exotica was filmed in Toronto in 1993.
Marketed as an erotic thriller on its release in Canada and the United States, the film proved to be a major box office success for English Canadian cinema, and received positive reviews. It won numerous awards, including the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and eight Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture.
A tax auditor for Revenue Canada, Francis Brown, is a regular visitor at a Toronto strip club called Exotica. Grieving for the loss of his murdered daughter, he always has Christina, an exotic dancer dressed in a schoolgirl uniform, give him a private dance. This inspires the jealousy of the club's DJ Eric, Christina's former boyfriend who has also impregnated the club's owner Zoe. While at the club, Francis pays his brother Harold's young daughter to babysit. However, Francis has no children left and the girl merely practices music alone until Francis returns and drives her home. Francis' relationship with his brother is strained, as the police have told Francis that Harold had an affair with his wife before she died in a car accident, that left Harold a paraplegic. It is also revealed that Francis's daughter was kidnapped and killed, and he was one of the suspects but was later exonerated. The accusation left a psychological scar on him.
In his professional life, Francis is sent to Thomas' pet store to audit books of account pursuant to the suspicion that Thomas is profiting from the illegal import of rare bird species. Thomas has been smuggling hyacinth macaw eggs, and his operation is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Francis is eventually banned from Exotica when Eric manipulates him into touching Christina during one of her dances, which is against the rules of the club. Around the same time, Francis discovers illegal activities in Thomas' financial records, and blackmails Thomas to go to the club to learn Christina's feelings about Francis. In the process, Francis realizes Eric intentionally set out to get him banned, and vows to kill him. Confronting Eric with a gun, Francis is defused when Eric reveals he and Christina were the ones who found the body of Francis's daughter. Christina also reveals to Thomas that she and Francis share a relationship of mutual dependency. In the past when she used to babysit his daughter, Francis would comfort her about her troubled life at home.
Director Atom Egoyan, who wrote the screenplay, first conceived of the story in the fall of 1992, intrigued by the ritualistic nature of table dances and the rule that clients can't touch the dancers, envisioning a story of a dancer having a main customer. He believed a strip club could be an important setting for a film because of society's sexual obsessions, and the roles of such clubs as "a collective sexual outlet". While wanting to portray the clubs accurately, he also believed he could bring a skeptical perspective.
He began working on the screenplay in February 1993. In writing it, he "wanted to structure the story like a striptease, gradually revealing an emotionally loaded history". He also cited thriller films as an influence. Although the city in the film is not named, Egoyan stated Exotica and his other films portray "different areas of Toronto".
The film had a $2 million budget, with $900,000 coming from Telefilm Canada and the Ontario Film Development Corporation pledging $700,000. To save money on the film, Egoyan's personal Volvo station wagon is used as Francis' car.
With the script completed in April, Egoyan began casting the film and choosing his crew, a process that took two months.
Egoyan's wife Arsinée Khanjian played the club owner Zoe, having appeared in all of his previous films. In the film, Zoe is pregnant with Eric's child, and in reality, Khanjian was pregnant during filming, with Egoyan's son Arshile. Egoyan later expressed regret in surrounding Khanjian with nude women when she was unsure how her own body would change during her first pregnancy.
Bruce Greenwood was cast in the film after he met Egoyan through a mutual friend in a bar, before the director had raised his international profile. Greenwood had previously appeared in St. Elsewhere and Knots Landing, and the two became friends.
Art directors Richard Paris and Linda Del Rosario built the Exotica strip club set in an unused room in the Party Centre, a Toronto building, with construction commencing in May 1993. During production, a number of people arrived onto the set believing it was a real club. For the outside of the club, the filmmakers used a shop on Mutual Street which has since been torn down, outside Metropolitan United Church. Osgoode Hall is used for the opera house.
The cinematography was done by Paul Sarossy, with Egoyan saying the goal of the camerawork was to capture the perspective of a missing character, in this case Francis' dead daughter. Principal photography was completed by July. Composer Mychael Danna recorded his score for the film from India, with influences from classical music in India.
Exotica was invited to compete in the Cannes Film Festival in May 1994, the first invitation for a Canadian film in several years. Initially released by Miramax in six cities, distributors were impressed when Exotica grossed $14,379 per screen, allowing for a broader release to 433 screens. Miramax marketed the film as an "erotic thriller." The film played in Toronto for 25 weeks, at one point in an IMAX theatre. In the United States, it was initially released in 500 theatres.
On home video, Exotica went out of print in Canada for years, but was available on DVD in England through the company Network. However, in 2012, Alliance Films released the film on DVD and Blu-ray in Canada, with commentary from Egoyan and Danna.
The film's initial box office performance in its limited release was considered "huge" by distributors. In March 1995, U.S. critic Roger Ebert reported Exotica was breaking box office records in Canada.
By 1995, Exotica grossed $1.75 million in Canada, a substantial sum for English Canadian cinema, though the 1981 sex comedy Porky's did better. The film ended its run after grossing $5.13 million in North America. Exotica was Egoyan's biggest financial success, and has been called his "box-office breakthrough.
Exotica received positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected 31 reviews, to give the film a rating of 97%. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, calling it "a movie labyrinth, winding seductively into the darkest secrets of a group of people who should have no connection with one another, but do". He judged it Egoyan's Best Film to date and said Mia Kirshner "combines sexual allure with a kindness that makes her all the more appealing". Jonathan Rosenbaum called it "A must-see" and "lush and affecting", praising Mychael Danna's score, the Exotica set and camera movements. Leonard Klady, writing for Variety, called it "a haunting, chilling experience", albeit with an ending that was "anticlimactic, fuzzy and considerably less than a knockout emotional punch". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a B+, concluding "Like Christina’s dance, the movie is a gorgeous tease, an artful promise of something that never quite arrives". Desson Howe, writing for The Washington Post, said it "starts off promisingly, but eventually sinks into its own convoluted oblivion". Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote "Exotica is Egoyan's most accomplished and seductive film to date", and less flashy than the upcoming Showgirls (1995) promised to be. B. Ruby Rich of The Advocate wrote the film is "a jigsaw puzzle of the emotions in which sex spells out whole language of human behavior", and said the cast, including Kirshner and Don McKellar, "rivet our attention on these characters". Critics complimented use of the song "Everybody Knows" by Leonard Cohen.
In 2001, Girish Shambu, writing for Senses of Cinema, said "Atom Egoyan’s sad, elegant Exotica (1994) is at once intimate and remote, concrete and abstract", praising Bruce Greenwood for "quiet gravity" and Sarah Polley as "precociously perfect". In 2002, readers of Playback voted it the seventh greatest Canadian film ever made. Ebert added the film to his Great Movies list in 2009, calling it a "deep, painful film about those closed worlds of stage-managed lust". In 2012, Jeff Heinrich of the Montreal Gazette gave the film five stars, calling it "An utterly hypnotic, X-rated art film" with a "haunting score" by Danna. Mike D'Angelo of The A.V. Club stated "Exotica —much like Egoyan’s subsequent film, The Sweet Hereafter— proves to be a devastatingly cathartic exploration of tragedy’s aftermath and the ways that people attempt to cope with inexpressible grief". In 2015, The Daily Telegraph named Exotica as one of "the 10 best (and worst) stripper movies", calling Egoyan "a then-wunderkind of Canadian cinema" and noting the film won awards at both Cannes and the AVN Awards, which are for pornography.
At the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, Exotica won the FIPRESCI Prize, the first time an English Canadian film had won the honour. At the 1994 Genie Awards, the film won eight prizes, including Best Motion Picture and Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Egoyan.