Interviews | I Think We’re Alone Now: Denis Côté Splits the House in Curling

denis cote

By Jason Anderson

Parka-wearing specks in a quintessentially Canadian landscape, a father and daughter hike through blowing snow along the side of a rural highway. A police car stops and an officer asks them why they’re not driving, a reasonable question given the harshness of the weather. (His other questions are less reasonable, prefiguring the father’s antipathy to authority that may explain later decisions.) But as formidable as Curling’s wintry landscapes may seem—especially in its lengthy and starkly beautiful opening shot (courtesy of cinematographer Josée Deshaies)—Denis Côté’s latest feature is ultimately a story about the value of making such journeys.

Getting the hell away from where you happen to be can be an awfully good idea, too. The sparsely decorated house where Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau) and 12-year-old Julyvonne (his real-life daughter, Philomene Bilodeau) live in a bleak town a ways outside Montréal no longer seems like any kind of home. Their chief activities there appear to be eating meals in stony silence and the occasional visit to the living room to let Julyvonne listen to pop songs on the stereo. (Never before have the songs of Tiffany or Stacey Q seemed so ominous.)

It soon becomes clear that Julyvonne does not go to school and that her father qualifies as her only real company. Mostly blank in her demeanour, the girl is quiet enough to make her father seem chatty. But like Jean-François, she’s growing hungry for some kind of new life. And no matter how much trouble these two characters have connecting to each other and to everyone else around them—a colourful but not cute gallery that includes what must be the town’s only goth couple—they are curiously determined to venture further into zones and spaces that may be as equally inhospitable to lonely travellers as that bleak highway.

Curling’s own eagerness to forge a connection with its viewers may mark it as a breakthrough in the body of work by the Montréal-based filmmaker. Remarkably productive given the soul-crushing circumstances of the Canadian film industry for established filmmakers and newcomers alike, Côté has made five features and several shorts since 2005. Two best-director wins at Locarno (including one for Curling), the appearance of last year’s superb Carcasses at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, and this year’s Les lignes ennemies, shot for the omnibus Jeonju Digital Project, have established him as perhaps the best-travelled of young Canadian filmmakers. (His first career retrospective will take place at the upcoming Viennale.) Thanks to the often confrontational nature of his tough, frankly intimate dramas Les états nordiques (2005) and Nos vies privées (2007) and the uncategorizable weirdness of Carcasses, Côté’s films have proven to be a better fit with adventurous festival programmers than those of most of his contemporaries.

A moving and often mysterious portrait of a family in transition, Curling may widen his base of support in Canada. Nevertheless, Côté feels that recent suggestions that it could be his most accessible film—the most prominent of which may be found in the Toronto International Film Festival program note for Curling—were undermined by the battery of questions he faced in Locarno from interviewers who were nearly as stubbornly querulous as that cop. It’s hard to deny that Côté retains the same fondness for ambiguities that marks the likes of Carcasses, the strangely miraculous doc-feature hybrid in which the loquacious proprietor of an enormous junkyard contends with wanderers of a different sort: a group of Down-syndrome adults apparently cast in the guise of interlopers. Curling, too, has its share of mysteries, most prominently involving Julyvonne’s forays into the woods. Left alone by Jean-François when he attends to his handyman jobs at a local bowling alley (where he’s memorably called Mr. Moustache by his boss) and a soon-to-close motel, she ventures into the world just beyond her doorstep. Her most significant finds are a tiger, and then a cluster of frozen corpses. As for Jean-François—played with great sensitivity by Bilodeau (who also won a prize in Locarno), an actor most familiar to Québecois audiences for playing Rene Lévesque in a recent TV mini-series—he too commits acts that are discomfiting and off-putting (also involving a dead body), though his most controversial decision in the film is not so strange if you consider his reaction to the officer in that first scene.

Haunting, humane, a bit mysterious, and often very funny, Curling succeeds as a story of two characters whose escape routes from despair are as idiosyncratic as they are. Likewise, Côté’s attitude toward the film’s setting of Mont-Saint-Hilaire—which, as he also notes, is barely a half-hour’s drive from downtown Montréal—is not so critical or caustic. Like the junkyard in Carcasses, this place is ultimately what these people choose to make it. For Jean-François and Julyvonne, it presents possibilities for new discoveries and strange adventures, some of them more sinister than others. Failing that, you can still head to the bowling alley, the curling rink, or the tobogganing hill and participate in the world of the living. After all, no one can survive in this country for long without knowing how to escape the Canadian winter.

Cinema Scope: Given how much the film encourages an emotional connection with the characters and ends on something of a hopeful note, it’s tempting to describe Curling as your most accessible film to date. But that word doesn’t really seem right—I suspect there are too many dead bodies for it to exactly qualify as “accessible.”

Denis Côté: After being at Locarno with the film, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more accessible. The very first day I gave interviews, I got these incredible questions: “Why don’t you answer this or that question in the film? What’s your relation to the audience? Do you want to play with the audience?” Stuff like that. I’m like, “Uh, you really think the film is so impossible to understand?” But in my opinion, this film is for everybody—everybody can find something in it. Carcasses is not for everybody. Either you hate it or you think it’s a revelation—there’s no in-between. I feel like I could show Curling to my uncle or aunt. But in Locarno, people really wanted all the answers…so let’s not say it’s accessible.

Scope: It may not quite be Carcasses, but Curling certainly has its share of characters who venture into some mysterious zone—the junkyard in the former, the forest that Julyvonne explores here—and perform actions and make discoveries that could seem quite ambiguous to viewers.

Côté: Some people say to me, “You’ve made five films—they are very different from one another.” I don’t agree. Actually, Curling is more like Nos vies privées, my second film. Here there are two people living with a secret they don’t share, and it was the same thing in Nos vies privées. There’s also a lot of Elle veut le chaos (2008) in the form. But yeah, Carcasses is more about the forest, too. I see the forest as a way to connect with the world sometimes, a link between civilization and the pure strangeness in the characters’ lives. That’s what Curling is all about: how to connect with the world. The little girl doesn’t know anything about the world, so she goes into the forest and finds connection. It doesn’t really matter that what she finds there are dead bodies. They could’ve been sweet-looking animals. It could’ve been a golf ball or a piece of fruit. It’s about her new connection with the world, and the forest is the link. The same is true with Jean-François and curling. People ask me, “Why curling?” Well, first of all, curling is a collective sport, so he could get closer to his community if he would curl. The moment he hears about curling, there’s a spark in his eyes—the only positive thing in his life during the whole film is curling. So it was an obvious decision for me to call the film Curling, even if maybe it’s a little obscure to explain. We make a lot of fun of the sport in Québec, so that adds another ironic aspect to this.

Scope: Yet the film is also very clear about the value of the sport in the lives of the people in communities like the one here, and about the potential for engagement that it creates.

Côté: That’s it and the film is very simple: how do you connect with the world of the living? They are just drifting and are very closed in on themselves, and then they make a switch to that world. What they have to do to do that, well, she had to meet some corpses in the forest and he had to be interested in curling. But simply put, it’s a story about a father and daughter and how they connect with the world.

Scope: The family themes may be another point of entry for people, though Julyvonne is certainly a character who may throw some viewers. She has a kind of blankness that suggests she may be autistic, yet she also defies our efforts to make amateur diagnoses.

Côté: I was very afraid to create a cute little girl character, you know what I mean? I didn’t want people to come out of this film and say, “Oh, she’s so cute, and she gives such a great performance!” That’s why I used a non-professional. She’s Emmanuel Bilodeau’s real-life daughter, though that’s purely accidental somehow. But she is not “incredible” in the film, she’s not giving a performance, she’s not screaming or crying—she’s just there. She’s a bit dead in her eyes and waiting for something to happen. That’s exactly what I wanted. All of those films with kids stealing the show, we hate that! I’m really happy that she’s not stealing the show here.

Emmanuel told me about Philomene and when I met her, she was a bit like she is in the film. She was near the right age, too. She was 14. If you meet her, she’s like a young woman, so in the film we did everything we could do to lower her age. In previous scripts, Julyvonne was eight, and then nine, and then ten. But I really liked that she was 12, because she’s not a kid any more. You feel she should be somebody at 12 yet she’s totally outside of the world because of her dad. If she was eight or nine we would understand her condition easily—that she’s 12 puts things in perspective. Another thing I liked is that Philomene could practice dialogue and situations with her father at night. They would go home and I would know that she would come back the day after and be perfect. That’s a weight on my shoulders I was very happy not to have. She never missed a line. She doesn’t have many, but still…

Scope: What’s more, Philomene’s not necessarily so strange. She may be slow and withdrawn, but she’s not that far off the norm.

Côté: She’s not mentally retarded. In Locarno, people were like, “They’re weirdos!” Really? There are a lot of people like them. People in my films are not marginal and they’re not freaks—they’re just a little outside civilization. The characters in Elle veut le chaos were literally living metres from the highway, and the same is true here. I like these kinds of people who hide from society a little bit but still participate in the community. They might hide in the closet or they might go curling with the others. There’s a thin line in the film—will we lose them or bring them back into the so-called normal world?

Scope: What then are viewers supposed to make of some of the things that Julyvonne sees? For instance, are the dead bodies she finds meant to be hallucinations?

Côté: No, there are bodies somewhere near the house. I don’t think it’s so strange. You read about that happening in the paper. Here we used to have what they call a “settling of accounts” between the biker gangs. We had a biker war for years. They cleaned up the whole thing and now they’re all in prison, but I remember reading about bodies being found in cornfields. That’s the country where we live. It’s so big, you can do stuff like that.

Scope: The tiger obviously gets a lot of people talking, too.

Côté: People talk to me about the crazy tiger so much. The tiger is more about that little girl’s need to work her imagination on something. People can say it’s a hallucination again, but for me, she believes she sees a tiger so there was a tiger somewhere. She needs to be a normal 12-year-old girl with a sense of imagination, so that’s why there’s a tiger. The poster may be a bit enigmatic, but you have the tiger for the little girl and the title of Curling for the dad—both are very positive things in their life stories.

Scope: In two of the film’s strongest scenes, we see her and her father listening to the pop songs by Tiffany and Stacey Q. These are our only chances to see her really enjoy herself in a very girlish way.

Côté: And both scenes have different meanings. The first one is funny but then in the second one, you don’t laugh at all. But it recently occurred to me that there are several subconscious things that happened to me with the film. First of all, choosing curling as a sport. I had no clue how symbolic curling was when I chose it—they even call the centre with the rings “the house.” Curling is very precise and austere—it connects so well with the story. Then there were the songs. I just tried to pick two songs I remembered from when I was young, and one was “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany. I only started to notice the lyrics recently and I thought, “Man, these lyrics are too much!” I realized the same was true with “Two of Hearts” by Stacey Q—those songs are such heavy choices. But it’s crazy how the unconscious works. There’s also that scene in the beginning when you see blood at the motel and then later, Jean-François asks Julyvonne what colour she wants him to paint the bathroom and she says red. I never made the connection.

Scope: It must seem as if the film has an unconscious of its own.

Côté: Sure it does. In Europe, people talk a lot about the landscape, too. It’s something we don’t talk about here because we know our country. We know that anywhere you put the camera, you’re going to have scenes that look like this. It’s not something we overthink, but for them the landscape is a character and there’s a psychology to it.

Scope: I did appreciate the abundance of that strong, hard winter light throughout the film—in fact, it seems to inform the interiors as much as the exteriors here. It’s not a movie full of warm, cozy hearths, for instance.

Côté: Well, I don’t like films where the lighting is trying to tell you something. At the same time, I wanted a bleak look so we did a bleach bypass—that’s a chemical thing you put on your image and everything becomes whiter and crisper. That did the job by itself. Still, I’m really not about production design. I don’t like having stuff on the walls. I’m not as extreme as Alain Cavalier but I don’t really like these films where you look more at the objects than the people. There was that movie a few years ago, Continental, un film sans fusil (2007), which people really liked and I really enjoyed it, too. The photography was extremely bleak and brown and yellowish. But the main problem was it was about objects, about cool objects. You were forgetting about people. You would see a Jiffy Pop, you would see a peanut machine, you would see a funny old telephone. In this film, the shot of the lighter with the cat on it is the only close-up on a thing in the entire film. I like to stay very rigorous and always stay with the people. There’s nothing spectacular about the film, nothing the camera does that says, “Look at my shot.” It’s always functional. That’s probably what’s most different with my earlier films. With Carcasses, it was all fixed shots, very disciplined. With Elle veut le chaos, it’s very spectacular and we had 40 feet of track everywhere. With my two previous films, it was handheld the whole time. The new one, it’s formally more mature, that’s for sure.

Scope: The budget for Curling was $1 million. Is this your first time working on such a scale?

Côté: It’s exactly the same as Elle veut le chaos. Technically it’s my second one with a big team and big logistics. I wrote the whole thing three years ago. I was originally with Bernard Émond’s producer but we parted ways. It’s a pretty professional project with all of the institutions behind us. But they never asked me to change anything. People always think the institutions ask you to change things, but this has never, never happened in my case. Maybe they know I won’t say yes. But the more I work with these people at Telefilm and SODEC, the more I think they trust me. They’re sensitive to the fact that the films travel—that they really like. And they know that out of five films, I made three by myself and with Canada Council grants, so they’re like, “Wow, this guy is making his own stuff and then sometimes he comes and asks us for money instead of asking us five or six times.” They like the fact that I can manage by myself. They would probably love it if my next film was another Carcasses that I made for five or ten thousand bucks and which travelled the world again. For the film after that, it would probably be easy to get a cheque. It’s not that they admitted me into some club—I admitted myself. See what I mean? I pushed the door open myself and never begged.

Scope: This might sound paradoxical, but do you think that maybe the funding bodies most appreciate the people who can prove they don’t need them?

Côté: That’s what they like. Take a guy like Xavier Dolan. I don’t care if you like or don’t like his films, but he made his last film with $600,000 and with private money. I won’t see the film and I don’t like the guy, but he made the film with 600 grand and that’s what we need in the industry. We need initiative like that. We need $60,000 movies travelling all around the world to refresh the industry. So I think when they see guys like me and him and other people, they really like it. You can’t beg all your life. I really like Maxime Giroux—he was in Locarno with his film Jo pour Jonathan. It was made for $60,000 and a Canada Council grant. So people are finding more and more ways to produce now. I don’t know if that’s the situation in all of Canada, but I know that people in Québec know it’s an alternative.

Scope: You’ve also been able to create a very large volume of work and do it according to the budgets you’ve set for each project. Does it pay in the long run to maintain that level of discipline?

Côté: It’s your license for the future. I just checked and I made five features and 17 shorts in 15 years for $2.3 million. You don’t have to go around and brag and say, “I make films with no money.” That’s not the point. But producers put so much in their own pockets with administrative fees and all that. Does this film look like some super-cheap independent film? I don’t think so. It doesn’t have crazy production values but there’s nothing cheap about it. I don’t know why people complain so much.

Scope: It begs the question as to how much a dramatic feature needs to cost if you find an interesting place to make it and actors worth watching.

Côté: I don’t know how much it costs to get that dialogue and that intimacy, but it doesn’t cost much in my opinion.

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