Denis Côté gets into funny business with Hygiène sociale

Denis Côté gets into funny business with Hygiène sociale
Denis Côté’s Hygiène sociale is being called a film about the pandemic, as I’m sure most films shot during the last 14 months or so are inevitably going to be identified. It’s true that the film’s ironic devices — a purposely anachronistic setting, characters who are physically distanced on-screen, very limited camera movements — suggest adaptation to our current reality. 

“It’s just funny to me,” says Côté. “I understand the movie is called Hygiène sociale and I understand we shot it last year, but everything else is perfectly accidental. The title, the concept, the idea of people standing far apart from each other while they talk, all of that was written as is in 2015 on a trip to Sarajevo. I was reading an author named Robert Walser, and I was reading so many books by this guy that I had started talking the way he writes. I was starting to feel almost possessed by his writing and the dandy angle of it. He’s a writer who talks about everyday situations in a very funky way. In Sarajevo, I had no friends; I was in a totally alienated mood in which I did nothing but regurgitate everything I had read from this guy into characters that were a little removed from the world. I knew it probably wasn’t ever going to become a movie, because all it was was dialogue and monologues. I knew I probably wasn’t going to write a book, either. I came back home, I filed it away, and I never had the ambition of making anything out of it.

“It is true that during the pandemic, actress Larissa Corriveau reached out to me and asked me if I had anything going that we could make,” Côté continues. “I told her I had 50 pages I hadn’t looked at in five years. She was very into it. She said it was easy to do, it could be done essentially for free in a field and she could do it with her partner, Maxim Gaudette. I wasn’t too sure, because there was no way for us to meet and work on the script. She said, ‘But the script is done! You have a script!’ 

“So it became this pandemic movie, sure, because I couldn’t work on it any more than I already had. I couldn’t make it mine. It’s not like Répertoire des villes disparues where I’d written 10 versions of the script in two years, I could collaborate with others and I knew what my themes were and what I wanted to say. This movie started as a kind of flâneur whim while I was travelling, it got put in the hands of incredible actors and now, it kind of feels like I’m stuck having to appropriate it for myself. 

“It’s sort of like a dream. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. I wrote all of it, but it feels wild. It doesn’t fit in with my other movies, and now I’m in a situation where I have to tame it, somehow. If that means accepting it as a pandemic movie, so be it. I just think it’s a good idea to put it out now. People are fed up. Theatres are opening up again, even if many are afraid to go. It’s a comedy that seems to be about the pandemic, but it’s not that clear. There’s something liberating and comic about it. I say this pretentiously, but it’s the movie people feel like seeing right now, at the tail end of the pandemic. It’s liberating. It doesn’t belong to this world.”

Larissa Corriveau (left) and Maxim Gaudette (right)

Gaudette plays Antonin, an 18th-century dandy (in appearance, anyway) who seems to spend most of his time skirting responsibility and wallowing in the misery that his lifestyle inevitably brings upon him. The film unfolds in a series of tableaus in which Antonin is confronted by the women in his life, be they his wife, his sister or an income tax agent, all of whom implore him to grow up and stop his juvenile wandering. Their pleas are not exactly taken in stride.

When I last spoke with Côté, for his documentary Ta peau si lisse, he spoke bemusedly about his surprise that critics and audiences didn’t necessarily pick up on the inherent comedy of his films. What seemed like obvious comedic propositions were not always treated as such. Hygiène sociale stands out from the lot in that sense, because Côté calls it a comedy and it is being marketed as such. Granted, it’s difficult to see the movie and disagree with that assessment, even if the film’s setting and formal elements aren’t exactly screaming Jerry Lewis.   

“It does seem like I’m trying to put forward the idea that it’s a comedy,” says Côté. “Maybe I’m aware that there’s this aura that surrounds me of this former film critic, Cinémathèque guy whose movies play in festivals in Kazakhstan, a snob, an elitist… Journalists over the years have always called my films ‘not for everybody!’ I’ve been carrying this idea that I’m not for everybody around with me for 15 years! I’m walking around, six foot four, covered in tattoos, and I always seem to be out presenting my films in Italy or Germany — that places me in an elite bubble from the outside, I think. I’m not always praising Quebec when I’m out there, either. I’m not necessarily travelling the world to tell them that all Quebec cinema is great. I might be a little grumpy, and I would prefer we talked about the movies themselves instead of just praising them blindly. So there’s definitely something to it where I’m smirking and going, ‘I can be funny, you know.’ But even in a few Q&As, people have asked me where I got the script. I can see in their face they can’t believe I would’ve written it. The word ‘radicalism’ is very much associated with my work… but I know this movie only has 15 shots in 75 minutes. It can still be funny! I’m even finding it difficult to intellectualize the film in interviews — it’s fun! It was made in a spirit of fun. I swear it! (laughs)”

Comparisons have been made between Hygiène sociale and filmed theatre. Even if the film’s roots are nowhere near theatre, it’s undeniable that a movie that only has 15 camera set-ups, most of which are 10-minute static takes in which characters speak while standing at seemingly unnatural distances, certainly has a lot in common with our basest conception of theatre. One could even argue that the script for Hygiène sociale could be transposed to the stage without making too many changes — but one also suspects that audiences who would see this story on stage would definitely see it for the comedy it is. In a sense, the radicalism that Côté is accused of by some seems to spring directly from the choice of pointing a camera at… well, pretty much anything. 

“It’s the dictatorship of televisual language,” says Côté. “When you watch a movie, you unconsciously expect televisual language and editing. Take this same movie, for example. Make it so the dialogue is a little less affected and a little more Québécois, edit it so it has a variation in shots, tighten the pace a little bit and set it in bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens, and it’s automatically the kind of banal sitcom that everyone will show up for every week on TV. I’m aware of this danger, so I look for ideas that will break down the theatrical boundaries of televisual language. I thought of setting it in these no man’s land locations in nature, which dismantle the kitchen sink aspect of it. I made it so that it’s people who are speaking about intimate subjects but yelling at each other at a distance of 10 feet, which is a cinematic idea in itself. I also worked on the sound — each scene has its own soundscape. But as you said, if you put it on the stage, it would be the same.”

Another aspect of the film’s dismantling of televisual language is the lens. In each scene or vignette, the lens is noticeably dirty — each scene has its own bespoke smear of grease. More than just a self-conscious burst of sprezzatura, the dirty lens creates a distancing effect. It makes us aware at all times that we are watching captured images.

“I’m thinking what makes you notice these things is you love the cinema more than the theatre,” says Côté. “I’m revolting against theatre, but my raw material is very theatrical. The dirty lens is sort of a leftover from my previous film, Wilcox. I wanted Wilcox to be dreamlike, to be distanced from its main character. I was very much in reaction to the idea of the ‘beautiful image’ that’s so common in Quebec cinema. I wanted to mess up the image or distance it, so that it would look like the world of the film wasn’t real. In Wilcox, we had put little bits of plastic on the lens. We didn’t want to do the same thing here, so we came up with putting KY jelly on the lens. We just had to make sure it didn’t obscure any of the characters’ faces, and we boosted it up about 5% in post-production. That, too, is a desire to escape the theatre. It’s sort of a basic trick, but it’s a way to find cinema in the theatre.”

Hygiène sociale is perhaps more overtly funny than Côté’s previous works, but no worries — it’s still a Denis Côté film.

“Yesterday I presented the film by saying that the day I make a movie that everyone loves, I’m going to stop making movies,” he laughs. “If four or five people walk out of a screening before the end, it’s always a good sign. I’m not interested in general consensus for my films. It’s automatically suspect! I don’t want to make those movies! Despite my age, I still cannot stomach unanimous praise. I’m 47 and I’m still making movies like Wilcox or Hygiène sociale, so it seems clear to me that this is not going to be curable. I have to keep exploring. I don’t think it’s provocation — I don’t like that word — but it’s exploration. I see filmmakers, they’re 35, 40, and they aspire to make big, beautiful, consensual movies. I never had that in me. It’s never been my ambition.”Hygiène sociale opens in Montreal theatres (Cinéma du musée) on Friday, May 14. Watch the trailer here:

Hygiène sociale by Denis Côté

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