I once took a screenwriting course with an instructor who believed that a scenarist's job is to lead the audience carefully by the hand, as if a motion picture were a minefield. Usually low-key and agreeable, he would begin sputtering and turning red after just a few pages of one of my scripts; invariably, he would eventually turn to me and protest, "You can't do that -- you're gonna confuse the audience." My invariable reply -- "I want to confuse the audience" -- only made him angrier. On one occasion, when he was berating me for writing a dream sequence which I'd neglected to helpfully preface with a scene of the character in bed to signify dream, he proclaimed with authority: "People go to the movies to be entertained and to learn something about themselves. They do not go to the movies to be confused."

I got a B in that class; I can only imagine what grade he might have given Atom Egoyan, whose latest film, EXOTICA, is a brilliant exercise in the art of withholding information. Though the film is nominally concerned with the same themes which appear throughout Egoyan's oeuvre -- voyeurism, loss, emotional numbness -- its primary concern is confounding the viewer. His modus operandi here, similar to that of his previous films but more so, is a refreshing antidote to the sledgehammer technique currently favored by Hollywood studios; where they tell you everything three times, to be certain it sinks into even the thickest multiplex skull, Egoyan parcels out only a third of the details necessary to make sense of the film's early, ostensibly expository scenes. Additional clues are gradually revealed as the film progresses, and only in the final scene do all of the story's elements finally snap into place.

A good thing, too, because the plot Egoyan has constructed for this puzzle is so patently ludicrous that it would probably implode if told simply and straightforwardly. Since the film's chief pleasure, for me, was in attempting to divine the nature of the characters' relationships and determine the meaning of apparently random bits of narrative and just generally figure out what the hell was going on, I am loathe to reveal too much of the story. EXOTICA will be most effective for a tabula rasa audience. (The blanker the better -- those lured by Miramax's misleading ad campaign, with its emphasis on the eponymous strip club and its promise of an "erotic thriller," will likely find themselves neither aroused nor thrilled.) The film's protagonist is Francis, played with alarming sincerity and depth of feeling by Bruce Greenwood. A tax auditor by day (Egoyan's own audit was reportedly the initial inspiration for the movie), Francis is first seen at night, at his usual table in the creepily lush and sterile club Exotica, where a beautiful young woman (Mia Kirshner), dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, performs a private and curiously asexual dance. She bares her breasts for him and presses her cheek to his, moving against him sinuously; he stares at her with an anguished expression and asks, repeatedly and hoarsely, "How could anybody want to hurt you?" Both of them are watched intently by Exotica's aggressively condescending master of ceremonies, Eric (Elias Koteas, who also played the title role in Egoyan's THE ADJUSTER), who has both a bird's-eye view of the proceedings from his perch above the dance floor and a close-up view from behind the club's numerous two-way mirrors. EXOTICA's other principal, a painfully shy pet-shop owner named Thomas (Don McKellar), is introduced when Canadian customs officials inspect him via another two-way mirror; on the way home from the airport, he receives two free tickets to the ballet in lieu of cab fare when he agrees to share a taxi, and he subsequently spends much of the film returning to the ballet in an attempt to pick up men by offering them a free "extra ticket." What's going on here? Well, that's for Egoyan to know, and you to find out.

One brief scene summarizes EXOTICA's pleasures and frustrations. Immediately following the first scene at the club, we see Francis driving; in the passenger's seat is a blond teenage girl (Sarah Polley, the little girl from Terry Gilliam's THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN). It's still dark, and Francis is dressed as he was in Exotica -- it is clearly later or earlier that same night. They chat innocuously for a moment, then Francis drops her off at her home. As Egoyan cuts to the next scene, your brain is still attempting to process the little information it's just been given. Who was that girl? What's her relationship to Francis? What happened during the ellipse that bridged the scene in Exotica and this scene in the car? Did this scene take place before the club scene? Was this girl at the club? Is she one of the dancers? At that age? What gives? All of these questions could have been answered with just one or two brief lines of dialogue, but Egoyan intentionally omits them -- and if he hadn't, frankly, the scene would be banal. Almost every scene in the picture operates on this level, especially early on, and each new revelation, however small, produces an audible murmur from the audience, as they connect it with what they've seen previously: "Oh, that's what was going on there." Depending on your inclination for intellectual puzzles, this will either thrill you (yeah, okay, that's what Miramax meant, right) or irritate the hell out of you; judging from the grumbling I heard as I exited the theater, there were many more of the irritated than the thrilled at the screening I attended.

EXOTICA certainly isn't devoid of ideas. Like Peter Weir's little-seen and underrated FEARLESS, it examines the aftermath of tragedy and the ways in which we attempt to cope with inexpressible grief (none of these characters has Koteas' adjuster to take care of them). Also, while the cinema has recently been inundated with self-deluding characters, Francis is a rarity: a man who's gone to enormous lengths to create an intricate fantasy world for himself, but who at the same time has remained fully cognizant of what he's done, and, on some level at least, of how bizarre it must seem to others. Ultimately, though, the film's form is more impressive than its content; it will appeal only to people who enjoy movies that fuck with their heads. It's the best film I've seen so far this year (not that January through March is generally a cornucopia of cinematic riches), but if you don't go to the movies to be confused, perhaps you'd best take my recommendation with a grain of salt.