In Atom Egoyan's under-rated 1994 film EXOTICA, many scenes take place in an adult dance club. Towards the beginning of the film, the character Christina (Mia Kirshner) starts dancing to the song "Everybody Knows" by Leonard Cohen and collaborator Sharon Robinson. During the song she does very specific moves that seem like sign language.

It is a Canadian film, so I wouldn't immediately assume it's ASL (American Sign Language), plus I don't know enough about ASL to recognize it, as opposed to stylized dance.

If it is sign language, what is she saying? It's a sad and beautiful movie with many layers and reveals. I imagine this might be another one hidden to people who don't understand signing.

EDIT : I am not asking if she is signing the lyrics. I just wonder if it is a message.

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    ASL is used in English-speaking Canada; French Canadian Sign Language is used by French speakers. As Exotica is set in Toronto, and Mia Kirshner grew up there, if it is sign language is is likely ASL. Apr 10, 2016 at 7:38
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    That may be hard to do. ASL, and all sign language in general, has very broad variations. It's not as standardized as spoken languages. lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/…
    – cde
    Apr 10, 2016 at 22:47
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    She seems to be signing the word "knows" (touching the side of her head) but that's not really unique to ASL or sign language in general.
    – user7812
    Apr 10, 2016 at 23:57
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    I don't think you have to be an expert in ASL to see that most of her gestures have nothing to do with the lyrics, though. "The fight is fixed, the poor stay poor" is just her gyrating. "Everybody talking to their pockets, everybody wants a box of chocolates" is just her doing a "sleepy time" gesture. She's either signing entirely different things (or at best her really loose interpretation of the song), or just making this up. [And I agree, I recall I liked Exotica, though haven't seen it in ages]
    – Walt
    Apr 11, 2016 at 11:18
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    I think there is an assumption I thought / asked if she was signing the lyrics. I never thought that. I just thought she might be saying something else that added to her character. Maybe even a confession about her secrets. I never thought she was doing the equivalent of closed-captioning. I should have noticed much earlier people seemed focused on this. :( May 26, 2016 at 16:08

1 Answer 1


No, sign language is not used in the film. Christina is just dancing in a strip club. There is no message in her hand gestures - either within the narrative or for the audience to decode.

Giving the appearance of intentionality to something which is other than it appears, however, resonates within the film's narrative. For example, Francis uses Christina's private dances and Tracey's "babysitting" like rituals: part fantasy to avoid the tragic reality of his life, and partly out of a frustrated desire to connect with the people in his life in a way that he can handle. These rituals are the means he has for coping with tragedies such as his wife's death, her infidelity with Harold, the loss of his daughter, etc... The meaning of the acts are one thing to him, but despite the performances meaning to him, they mean something very different to the likes of Christina and Tracey.

For what it is worth, I showed this clip to someone who does speak ASL and they confirmed that it has no intentionalistic linguistic content. They also made a similar comment as user7812.

Much like the film's protagonist, recognizing a single instance of something which might have semantic content (like signing "know" by pointing to the temple) out of an entire performance which simply does not have any propositional content, the desire remains: imagining that there might be some greater significance reinforcing the illusion of some fantasy narrative which does not exist elsewhere except in the mind of the viewer.


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