En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène sociale

By Jordan Cronk

Following a run of creative setbacks and course corrections, Denis Côté returns to magnificent form with Hygiène sociale, a piercingly funny and exquisitely shot work that finds the Québécois filmmaker casting a critical eye on the nature of his art and the era in which it is now being asked to thrive. No mere pandemic film (the script was largely written in 2015), Côté’s latest instead turns our current circumstances into a means for reflection, analysis, and confrontation with the very tools and convictions that have made him into one of contemporary cinema’s most prolific and unclassifiable directors. At a time when the very concepts of serious-minded filmmaking and theatrical exhibition are being called into question by streaming giants and IP managers with zero investment in the sustainability of the art form, Côté proposes that what’s needed if the cinema is to survive is not a reckoning with the notion of what is or isn’t a movie, but a re-engagement with the tenets of an author-driven cinema, achieved on its own unique terms.

A distinctly free and unburdened work, Hygiène sociale opens upon a pair of figures in a field engaged in an argument, framed from a distance and with a socially responsible 1.5 metres of space between them—a nod to both current realities and to the individualist ethos of Antonin (Maxim Gaudette), a hopelessly pretentious dandy who, we learn through the first of his many spiels, has removed himself from bourgeois society and become a petty thief who lives in his friend’s Volkswagen and showers in the municipal pool. Plagued, in his words, by a “deep moral fatigue,” Antonin is self-aware to a fault, a man of big ideas but scant ambition whose blinkered existence will be interrogated over the course of the film by five women: his disapproving sister Solveig (Larissa Corriveau); his “part-time” wife Eglantine (Evelyne Rompré); his two-timing lover Cassiopée (Eve Duranceau); a tax collector named Rose (Kathleen Fortin); and Aurore (Eleonore Loiselle), a mysterious victim of his half-hearted crimes. What these women have in common is a shared skepticism of Antonin’s attitude and ideals: there isn’t a hill he isn’t willing to die on, something he proves time and again across a series of extended dialogue scenes that highlight the absurdities and anxieties of the modern condition.

Set entirely outdoors, Hygiène sociale is an exemplary plein air film, all rolling pastures and sun-dappled horizons. Capturing the Québec countryside in all its picturesque glory, Côté employs the largely static camera of his recent cinematographer of choice, François Messier-Rheault, allowing the environment to shape the essence of each tableau as much as the dialogue does, which is a kind of weather system in and of itself that proves as dense as it does humorous. To that end, the actors, all veterans of the stage and decked out in period-inappropriate costumes, orate with a theatrical flair from stock-still positions that heighten the delirious nature of the discussions, which careen from cynical social commentary (“Being poor is no longer fashionable”) to pseudo-intellectual nonsense (“But what would be the thoughts of a calf who looks at fireworks?”). Call it a Straubian comedy—that is, if Straub dropped the highbrow references to Pavese, Hölderlin, and Schoenberg and fully embraced the existential narcissism of post-millennial living.

Following combative encounters with the first four women, all of whom he manages to either stonewall or leave exasperated, Antonin meets his match in Aurore, a stylish young bohemian whose car he has unwittingly broken into. Before their climactic confrontation, Aurore is seen in documentary-style vignettes traversing the countryside in search of Antonin. When they finally meet, following a hypotonic interlude in which Aurore dances alone in the forest to Lebanon Hanover’s darkwave anthem “Kiss Me Until My Lips Fall Off,” Antonin is visibly taken aback by Aurore’s mix of working-class grit and academic brain power (as she explains, she studies theology by day while working at McDonald’s on the weekends). As their conversation builds, the details of Antonin’s failed attempt at making a film come to the fore, an unrealized dream that Aurore skewers with the same rhetorical wordplay (“Is imagining a film the same as making one?”) that Antonin has previously used to twist the logic of any given situation. With casual rigour and a clear love of language, Côté has, with Hygiène sociale, made a strikingly contemporary film that speaks to cinema as an art of classical distinction which, nonetheless, holds the power to transcend eras and project storytelling beyond the bounds of genre and psychology.

Cinema Scope: First of all, how are you holding up? I imagine that living through a pandemic is especially precarious when fighting degenerative kidney disease.

Denis Côté: I like to say that living with a degenerative chronic disease is like living in a house on fire. Now comes the pandemic and your burning house is infested by cockroaches. Does it change the situation much?

All jokes aside, the major problem of kidney insufficiency is constant exhaustion. But I was still able to make a feature film, and I have another one written and financed, so it sounds like this COVID frenzy is not slowing me down. I never live in fear; I do my things while being careful. I can see the whole situation is affecting people much more than me. It comes down to how you see life. I’m old enough to know I’m not a cynic or a pessimist. I’m probably not an optimist. I’m somewhere between a fatalist and a determinist, if that makes any sense.

Scope: You wrote the script for Hygiène sociale back in 2015. What prompted you to revisit it in 2020? Did it have anything to do with the nature of the dramaturgy and how it could potentially relate to COVID-era themes and anxieties?
Côté: I have a hard time considering this film as a COVID-related affair. Things happened by accident. Are they a collateral damage of the pandemic? Maybe. The truth is that I wrote 85% of the script in November and December 2015, and it was already called Hygiène sociale at the time. I was reading a lot of books by Swiss author Robert Walser. I was intoxicated with his style, his way of seeing the world—always with slight irony. I was alone in Sarajevo: no friends, in a small apartment, struggling with hot water and electricity. In the morning, I’d spend three or four hours writing these long dialogues and creating dandy characters, and in the afternoon I’d read about and try to understand the horrors of the Siege of Sarajevo. I was in a weird state of mind. I’m not sure I’d call it alienation, but it was productive and weird.
Back in Montréal, I could see that it was not a real script: it was just long monologues and dialogues. I left the 50 pages on a shelf somewhere. In May of 2020, Larissa Corriveau, who plays Antonin’s sister Solveig, was quite depressed about the COVID situation. Actors couldn’t really work, so she asked if I had a forgotten or lost project somewhere. So I sent her those old pages, she read them, and from there we found actors and everybody fell in love with the material, knowing we could do it in a few days, safely, on a no-budget agreement.
In the end, I must admit that it’s a little hard to recognize in Hygiène sociale the person who wrote and made films like Répertoire des villes disparues (2019) or Curling (2010), but I like what we achieved, even if by accident. As for COVID, I feel that the film is a sort of answer to it, maybe as a way of refusing or rejecting it by escaping in a totally different, dandy-anachronistic world. It’s hard to say. I just hope people won’t say it’s a “pandemic film.”

Scope: It feels to me like a break with your previous work, or at the very least a work of reinvention or reinvigoration on your part. I’m curious why you don’t recognize the person who made Répertoire des villes disparues and Curling in the film, and how that might have played into your conception of this project?

Côté: I’ve heard it before and I’ll hear it again that my style or my signature seems to change with every film. It’s possible. On some days, I take it as a compliment. It means I question or reinvent myself or I find the right style for a specific subject. On some other days, the cinephile in me is very admiring of filmmakers keeping to a strong, recognizable visual or thematic signature—people like Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr, Nikolaus Geyhalter, Hong Sangsoo, or whomever. We could say they enrich their style in film after film, while some would argue that they simply repeat themselves. I didn’t think I would get back to that static approach I had in a film like Bestiaire (2012), but the theatrical aspect of the new film pushed me towards it.

Scope: Philosophically, though, do you think Hygiène sociale represents a shift in your approach? In interviews for Ta peau si lisse (2017), you spoke of returning to your comfort zone. Hygiène sociale feels like you’re once again pushing yourself outside that comfort zone in terms of the temporal and conceptual dimensions of the film, which perhaps formally resemble something like Bestiaire but are here taken to much different lengths.

Côté: I probably don’t have a comfort zone, and that’s probably what makes me go on. Fundamentally, I know for sure I’m not a subject-driven filmmaker or someone who makes films to change my society or the world. It all comes down to trying things. Making 13 films in 15 years is obviously a hit-and-miss enterprise, and my relationship with masterpieces or Grand Cinema is a very conflicted affair. Something inside tells me I should slow down and take the time to overthink a great-powerful-entertaining film and take five years to make it. But I always end up moulding a new “thing” or following a new impulse. I never calculate if a project answers the one before or fits in a continuum.

When I take a step back, I look at my body of work like I would stare at a cabinet of curiosities: some objects are more meaningful than others, and I get lost trying to understand where I found them. In the case of Hygiène sociale, it’s even more brutal since it was written quickly a long time ago, forgotten, then resurrected in a matter of weeks. I didn’t have time to live with it and be haunted by it. It’s a lot harder for me to really know where it comes from and where it fits in my trajectory. What pleases me the most with the film now is its way of rejecting realism or disconnecting itself from everyday concerns. The characters are more like nifty ideas than real people. It remains to be seen if that is really something I want to pursue in the next projects or if it was just dandy escapism in times of COVID.

Scope: You mention “rejecting realism.” Was this declamatory mode of expression and the theatrical arrangement of the performers something present in your original scenario or monologues, or was this fleshed out only after you revisited the material in 2020?

Côté: It was all there five years ago. I knew that if I’d make the project one day, it would end up being a play or most probably a tableau-like film. The only thing I revisited in 2020 is the very last scene (Antonin and his wife and object of desire). I felt the whole project needed a sort of closure or last chapter. Because of COVID, I couldn’t do live readings with the actors and decide which word or line should be changed. I gave the 50 pages to actor Maxim Gaudette and told him he had two months to learn everything. You can’t change your mind when actors must learn a ten-page text for a scene. They would strangle you. We met once and we agreed on that declamatory tone. They all loved it.

Scope: The approach can’t help but recall Straub/Huillet. A certain formalism is present in all your work, but what would you say prompted the employment of this postmodernist style? Is it something you gleaned from Walser, or are you working from a purely cinematic perspective?

Côté: A few hours ago, I engaged in an exchange with a respectable film critic who called the film “a superb parody of Straub/Duras cinema.” I’m not too sure what to make of such an observation. Even though I’m no expert in Straubian cinema, in no way is the film a parody. When I watch and admire the beginning of Moses and Aaron (1975), I see artists making a very important choice: they film from behind a model/actor impersonating an entity called Moses. I stand no chance and have no access to the psychology of a character named Moses. I can’t identify. What’s left is the pure act of filming the speech, the theatricality of the word, and the music. This well-known modernist distanciation approach is one of the ways to reject psychology and character identification, and I certainly use it in Hygiène sociale.
The connection with Walser is more on a thematic level. Walser was a master at monologuing, at loafing around and observing the world in a marvellously nonchalant way. I can’t recall or imagine people exchanging words like they do in my film. In retrospect, I can certainly see that when I’m free and work fast on a no-budget scale, I like my filmic objects to be challenging on a formal/cinephilic/intellectual level. On a bigger budgetary scale, when I take the time to write scripts and create complex characters, I play with the conventions of psychological identification.

Scope: I think contemporary critics have trouble dealing with humour. It can’t just be what it is—it has to be satire or parody. To that end, would you say this is your first comedy? In some ways the film feels like a response to a particularly modern form of, I don’t know, comedic existentialism? What’s your relationship like with the genre?

Côté: Interesting question. I think everybody is afraid of humour. With drama, there are many shades or levels. If something is not clearly dramatic, it’s OK because it is easily interiorized. Humour is usually synonymous with audible laughter—trying to be funny and failing can be terrifying. I’m not trying hard to make the audience laugh in Hygiène sociale. The humour comes from the dandy persona of Antonin and the formal approach of the project. For some people the long static shots will play like irony or humour, while others will just take pleasure in the compositions.

I don’t know if I’m a big fan of dumb comedies, but I sure have admiration for absurdism: Andy Kaufman and Jim Carrey, or stuff like Anchorman (2004), or most of Christopher Guest’s films. I always feel the creators and the actors are not afraid to fail and be ridiculous. It takes courage. Maybe even more than with people like Chaplin, Keaton, Tati, and others who were more into comedy as an art form; they were comic intellectuals. The people and films I just named are more primal—they’re walking a thin line between being hilarious and failing miserably. 

Scope: I guess that’s because if a film claims to be a comedy and isn’t funny, then the reason for its failings is more or less self-evident. Whereas with something like Boris sans Béatrice (2016)—a film I find interesting and humorous, but which was met rather unenthusiastically—the failings are more difficult to pinpoint. Where do you fall on that? Do you think there’s more or less room to fail with a project like Hygiène sociale?

Côté: Claiming your film is a comedy when it’s clearly not one is a self-defense mechanism. I thought Boris sans Béatrice was full of irony; I had a hard time taking my main character seriously. In the story, I was watching him fail and it felt “comedic” to me. But we didn’t sell the film with all the necessary irony, and people ended up taking it on the surface level. In my defense, I tried too late telling people it was a comedy.

Obviously, the definition of a failure is tightly connected with the ambition of a project. In the case of Boris sans Béatrice, I had a $2.5 million budget, stars, an international sales agent, and I was obliged to make sales. I needed performance. Without minimal performance you can jeopardize your chances of being financed for future projects by your local ministries of culture. Luckily, the film was at least competing at the Berlinale. 
Hygiène sociale is a whole different ballgame, just like BestiaireQue ta joie demeure (2014), or Wilcox (2019). Those films are made on a shoestring grant budget and nobody expects you to perform. Nobody is even expecting a new film. The film can reach a big or small audience; the stakes are low. You can miss the mark artistically, but it would never be considered a commercial failure. I claim that Hygiène sociale is a comedy. It’s clearly packed with derision and mockery; it doesn’t tackle heavy political or social subjects. We had fun on a ridiculously low budget. We’ve already won. I wish more filmmakers would be less obsessed with budgets, rules of the industry, and performance. Half of my filmography was created without that pressure, and I probably feel better and freer when I approach new challenges.

Scope: Speaking of the Berlinale, you have a good relationship with the festival. By the time people read this the film will have premiered there, albeit virtually. Where do virtual festivals leave a film like Hygiène sociale? On the one hand, like you say, because of the budget and nature of the project there aren’t really any expectations. On the other hand, how does one even judge a success in the virtual world?

Côté: I wish I could give you a good or clever answer! I will give you a Zen one: very early on, I decided to accept the COVID reality. Being frustrated at this temporary period makes no sense. Maybe I deal pretty well with fatality. Maybe I’m good at following rules. But once you give me the choice between sharing my work virtually or not sharing it at all, I pick my side pretty easily. Are people really watching a film of mine in the best conditions? Are the films fully appreciated on a laptop? What can I say? I miss shaking a person’s hand who just appreciated one of my films on a big screen. That I can say.

Scope: Tell me a bit about where the film was shot. I’m guessing it’s somewhere in Québec? It’s a rather stunning location.

Côté: You don’t have to travel that far in Québec to make it look like you are in a no man’s land, beautiful or not. We found all our locations in the Eastern Townships, not too far from the US border. Most of the time, we didn’t ask permission to access those giant fields. Each and every time, we got caught by owners, but it ended up being OK.

Scope: I assume those are real people we’re seeing in the background of the first scene with Antonin and Cassiopée?

Côté: This was actually a wonderful accident. The owner of the land for that scene decided to go on a stroll with two guests around her property, not knowing she was bombing our shot. She appeared in the last two seconds before I said cut. Instead of erasing the presence of the trio in post-production, I decided to extend them in the shot. What you see in the final film is a loop for a full minute and a half. I love it. It’s like an audience.

Scope: That’s amazing. I feel like with a lot of these “open air” films the actors and crew have to be aware of and prepared for so many variables, whether they be people or light or variations in the weather. I know you shot fast, but did anything on location prove difficult to work through? In the first scene alone we see the light and shadows shift a considerable degree.
Côté: The casting of such a project is very important. The six main protagonists in the film are all very experienced theatre actors. They all had a minimum of ten pages of dialogue to learn; 50 in the case of Maxim. They all knew I wouldn’t use any editing tricks and that they had to perform the scenes without any mistakes. And they really performed well! Obviously, with a low budget and a five-day shoot, weather, light, rain, or shine is secondary, though we postponed two days of the shoot because of rain. In the end, seeing light shifting in a scene because of the clouds is really cool, in my opinion.

Scope: Can you tell me a bit about the writing process on a thematic level and the ideas behind the characters? You mentioned not trying to tackle major political or social topics, but the language nonetheless seems to embody very modern anxieties and notions of individuality and the self.
Côté: It’s hard to go back to my state of mind when I wrote it. If I take a step back and try to recognize myself in all this verbal jousting, I’d say that the film is revisiting concepts of individualism. This “me vs. the world” or “the community vs. me” vibe in many of my films is something I really like to tackle and play with. In my personal life, I sometimes have a hard time with life in a community, with authority, being part of a group, following rules, etc. It doesn’t make me a rebellious contrarian—and it doesn’t mean I don’t care for the people around me—but I end up questioning a lot, or at least looking at things with distance and irony. At times, I feel I don’t take part in the world’s actions, decisions, problems, happiness. Naturally, as the creator of this Antonin figure, someone who doesn’t always take himself too seriously, who can be selfish, who’s feeding and celebrating his difference in relation to those around him, I can’t help but ask myself if I’m that guy. Playing with language, space, time, and periods was a clear intention. Everything else in the film is probably twisted psychoanalysis!

Scope: Not to psychoanalyze you, but when and how did this individualist mentality take shape? Can you trace it to your youth? As you described this mindset, it brought to mind the Aurore character, who I think at one point says something like, “I believe in myself.” She also of course has a distinctly different, more youthful and punkish look than the other characters.

Côté: When I release a film I do a lot of interviews, and at some point, talking and talking and reshaping my ideas about the films, I end up understanding why and how they resemble me. It usually comes a good six to eight months after the films have been travelling, after I read different opinions and reviews about them. It’s always a sort of late psychoanalysis; something I can’t really dig or understand while I’m writing the films. Now I probably made the mistake of telling you that Antonin could be my alter ego. It’s too early—I need to process this! I don’t know how far back I can trace my desire to be different, but I can certainly see that my path is quite unique, and I fight hard to keep my independence. For a lot of experienced filmmakers at my age, a no-budget project like Hygiène sociale would be seen as a time-wasting experiment, a film so small it won’t help any sort of “future career” or bring bigger opportunities. I can obviously see that I’m stubborn, never calculating, only believing in myself, like Aurore would say.
When I was a teenager, I was in the underground international metal scene—the fanzines, the tape-trading community. Then, at 18, I booked my first shows as a concert promoter; I worked in record stores, deejayed in bars while studying film in college. The cinephilia and the bar/music scene culture were always clashing. I really had to figure out how to merge my two passions in those years: Pialat, Cassavetes, and Godard on one side, death metal on the other. Can we say individualist mentality? Maybe.

Scope: Can you tell me a little about how Aurore played into the film’s narrative construction? The way she’s introduced, through these brief passages where she’s wandering through the forest, lends her an unusual energy and a seemingly unique importance. These scenes are of course also shot in a different style…

Côté: I knew the film would be a series of long, fixed shots—funny dialogues, but still a static visual language. I felt I had to kind of explode something in the narrative to create surprise and make you interested in the “next chapter,” so to speak. Transitions were important. Of all the characters, Aurore is probably the most unexpected. I felt that she should have her own narrative, a sort of deceiving thread in our story. She’s shot documentary-style, as if neither the camera nor Antonin can control her. Everything is “given” in the film. When you see a new character, the name and function of that person are revealed in less than 20 seconds. I wanted to play differently with Aurore, “the character who wasn’t supposed to be there,” “the girl who’s not supposed to catch or reveal Antonin’s fraud.” Weeks before the shoot, I got the idea for this sort of documentary de-ambulation in the forest with her. During editing, we decided to parcel out her appearances, creating a mystery around her identity. Overall, I think she helps the dynamic of the project.

Scope: How did her character, or this slow reveal of her identity, play into the decision to have her dance in the forest to Lebanon Hanover’s “Kiss Me Until My Lips Fall Off?” It’s one of those strange breaches in the narrative that’s not uncommon in your work, and which seems engineered to upend the viewer’s sense of continuity. I’m guessing it ties in with the notions of space and time that you were looking to disrupt?

Côté: Aurore is the feminine answer to dandy Antonin pretending to live a “life of adventures.” She says she loves music and dance, so I imagined this funny musical interlude in the forest. Obviously, I like your use of the word “disruption,” because that’s what it is in a lot of my films: finding formal ways to surprise the audience. Wilcox was a minimal film, rejecting psychology and natural sounds; I liked answering with this one, a continuous flow of dialogues. I really like Lebanon Hanover, and it was a pleasure to get in touch with them. They put forth a very first-degree gothic image filled with despair and sadness; their videos are hilarious and can’t be taken nearly as seriously. Their universe seems to connect so well with the plaintive world of Antonin.

Scope: Perhaps the Straubian nature of the mise en scène has me thinking across a spectrum of classical modernists, but the concluding curtain call of characters couldn’t help but bring to mind similar endings in John Ford’s work; I think Joseph McBride has called them “memory images.” How do these images function for you, as they relate to the themes of the film and the context of its production?

Côté: I didn’t have a conclusion when I revisited my structureless dialogues from five years earlier. I had to imagine an ending, i.e., that sort of reunion of the husband–wife–object of desire trio at the end. Why? Why did I need closure? Why did I need a falling curtain like that? It’s somehow very classical, and even when you try to play with form like I usually do, you end up revisiting those classical endings and the need to open, develop, and close a story. Conscious or not, I guess I always come back to certain narrative obsessions and their various inherent trappings.

Scope: Regarding how your new films often answer your previous ones, I’m curious what you feel crosses over from film to film. Other than “narrative obsessions,” do you feel like you’re learning or applying new things, stylistically or materially?

Côté: It’s a very mysterious aspect of filmmaking and scriptwriting, how much is supposed to be conscious and unconscious. I usually follow my impulses of the moment, trusting that I evolve as a person and an artist. I’m pretty sure I never imagine things to underline or remind the viewer that I made films like Curling or Vic et Flo ont vu un ours (2013) or Bestiaire. A new film should never be an attempt at your “best-of.” It might sound like a cliché, but I think a filmmaker should be obsessed by a mixture of novelty and danger. Stylistic and thematic comfort is a very scary concept for me. I’m wondering what’s going on in the minds of directors who always repeat the same visual or storytelling motifs. Like painters, we probably have periods; it’s normal. But preparing a new project, calculating and weighing all your effects so the audience can recognize the best elements of your signature, seems suspicious to me. I don’t know. Everything should act or roll out on an unconscious level. The paradox is that on the one hand, I’d like people to recognize that a film they are watching is definitely one of mine; and on the other hand, I’d like to make them believe I’m completely reinventing myself with each new film. It’s vanity speaking. 

Scope: Hygiène sociale seems like it was a very liberating project in a lot of ways. Is there anything you discovered in the unique writing or production process that may influence how you approach future projects?

Côté: I think I’m confirming and reconfirming something I discovered around 2012 when I released Bestiaire. The no-budget, semi-improv, open-to-accidents films are essential to my trajectory. They might seem smaller and their lifespans can be shorter on the market, but they mean something, and I must make them. They must exist in order to give me confidence and energy to make the bigger ones; they must exist so I can enjoy the DIY adrenaline rush before reconnecting with the rules of the industry. As with painters, some works or films are more like gestures while others are more ambitious, and they end up being considered as masterworks. You just never really know when your gesture can be considered as something masterful. So you keep going.