TIFF 2023 | Mademoiselle Kenopsia (Denis Côté, Canada) — Wavelengths

By Winnie Wang.

Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023).

Mademoiselle Kenopsia is centrally concerned with liminality—those spaces that oscillate between familiar and surreal, enduring in transitional stasis. The dimensions of transition can be temporal, as in sun-bleached plastic jungle gyms that evoke the passage from childhood, or spatial, as in secluded motels in the middle of road trip destinations. In Denis Côté’s 16th film, however, the liminal spaces are collapsed under one roof by way of creative geography, comprising steady shots revealing walls, hallways, and entrances from various angles. The rooms are mostly vacant, with the occasional chair or trailing sheet of paper that threatens to betray their anonymity. Some more industrial settings are characterized by high ceilings and exposed pipes, while others are more ambiguous as to their previous uses and inhabitants.

In her fourth collaboration with Côté, Larissa Corriveau assumes the role of a guardian figure who obsessively watches over these domains. Her penetrating stare might be mistaken for that of someone in a policing or surveillance capacity, but Corriveau’s spirit of inquiry and invitation shines through to insist on the nameless character’s warmth. Drifting between disparate spaces, she materializes in different rooms to pass the time by sweeping the floor, practicing piano, and conducting phone calls to a silent listener. The subjects of these one-sided conversations, half-reports, and half–introspective musings inspired by the experience of carrying out her responsibilities, range from the limits of human perception to the passing of time. Though she seems to formally serve as a caretaker of the premises, Corriveau’s character gradually integrates into the enigmatic structure’s sense of kenopsia—the unsettling, melancholic atmosphere of a place that has been drained of life. Looming as a spectral presence, she embodies evidence of the past.

The film is cleaved into thirds as Corriveau’s character twice pursues the source of an offscreen sound, each aural intrusion leading her to an unexpected stranger, offering her temporary relief from silence and isolation. In the first instance, a woman with a cigarette lit by our protagonist pontificates on the ephemerality of smoke and our desire to occupy space, complementing Corriveau’s earlier thoughts with her monologue. Later, she follows a set of banging and whirring sounds to a handyman installing a security camera. They share an intimate gaze that intensifies to electronic music by French duo Potochkine, but the tension from their staring contest quickly evaporates in the following shot, wherein he fixes a jammed door. It’s unclear whether her gaze toward the man is a display of attraction to a sexual object or fascination with a fellow custodian, though it’s one of the only glimpses we have of her inner life.

These guests not only provide a tonal shift to the film’s solitude, but also demonstrate the way that liminal spaces need not be entirely devoid of people. Though images of vacant shopping malls, deserted gas stations, and empty offices illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights are often conjured in response to the phenomenon, Côté understands the concept beyond its simplification as eerie, abandoned sites. Liminality, the state of standing at a threshold during transition, is also expressed through characters whose presence underlines what was and what will be. Their sudden appearance in these spaces invokes an absence, compelling viewers to consider what these forgotten interiors might have resembled when they were populated with activity and people, and what might happen as they continue to decay.

Within Côté’s filmography, Mademoiselle Kenopsia might best be situated beside Bestiaire (2012) and Ta peau si lisse (2017), forming a triptych of meditative films that examine their subjects—liminal spaces, zoo animals, and male bodybuilders, respectively—in the tradition of direct cinema. Shifting away from the documentary mode, this most recent work can also be viewed as a companion piece to Wilcox (2019), which follows a lone, nomadic wanderer who traverses into the rugged wilderness in search of solitude and adventure. Told entirely without dialogue, Wilcox incorporates elements of scripting and staging, but ultimately evades strict categories of fiction and documentary. In this hybrid mode, the camera observes, time passes, and narrative structure is withheld in favour of highlighting ambiguity and the expressive quality of the images on screen. In Mademoiselle Kenopsia, Côté dares to lean further into experimentation with structure and setting, incorporating abstract dialogue, puzzling spatial configurations, and 16mm projections of foliage and fauna onto his interiors.

Despite its resistance to narrative, Côté’s film remains accessible thanks to its stunning compositions featuring carefully scouted locations stitched together through editing. Indecipherable via traditional narrative logic, its concern for spatiality is located in feeling and memory. Vertical lines stretch across the frame and occasionally clash with tables, ledges, and other flat surfaces to lend visual interest. Natural light enters through windows, scattering against peeling walls and ceilings to fill their containers. Each room comprises not only architectural elements, but also a particular room tone—the sound of a faint hum, a low buzz, a breeze—that recalls a sort of auditory analogue of the spaces. Assisted by its swift 80-minute runtime that averts any feelings of claustrophobia, the film successfully executes its setup, featuring a single character and a location that each refuse to be concretely defined or easily known. Corriveau, as the stoic guardian dressed in a crisp white blouse and black trousers, delivers a mesmerizing performance that infuses each gesture with precision and magnetism.

Even when the film reveals, it withholds. During the final scene, we meet a woman, dressed similarly to Corriveau’s character in black and white, who clarifies, “You understand that we can’t let you go anywhere else, right?” to which comes the answer, “I know. I’ve always been here.” We finally discover the identity of the listener on the phone and receive confirmation that “here” is a single space, but not how long she’s held this position, how this space relates to the outer world, or who it can be accessed by. What remains evident, though, is that while our protagonist is bound to the premises, she’s not imprisoned, but rather holds an essential role in sustaining its liminal status. Indeed, her lingering presence maintains an atmosphere of nostalgia and unease, but more importantly, she preserves the interiors in a persisting state of transition that prevents erosion into crumbling ruin without fully restoring them to their original life.

“You shouldn’t film people, but the gap between them. The light, the balance, the vibrations, everything. Not people’s lives but the life in between them,” the first visitor suggests, citing a filmmaker whose name she can’t recall. Could landscapes and objects exist independently, free of the usual human activity that lends understanding to existence? Within an oeuvre that transcends boundaries of genre and narrative, Mademoiselle Kenopsia—and Côté’s approach to filmmaking at large—appears to hold this belief. Perhaps more than mere belief, the film exemplifies the thrilling possibilities of liberating vision, sound and movement from narrative constraints that foreground character and plot, arguing for a cinematic language that embraces formal experimentation. The result is a necessary return to the image, an affirmation of its power to mesmerize, disrupt and inspire.

wwang@cinema-scope.com Wang Winnie