Berlin: Denis Cote on the comedy “Social hygiene” approved by a pandemic

The Canadian author rarely strays from a fixed-camera painting and socially distant characters onscreen, even though his 13th film ran for six years, long before the COVID-19 crisis.

The absurd comedy in French by Denis Cotes Social hygiene opens with a bird’s-eye view of Antoninus, philosopher and petty thief, standing in a field more than two meters from his long-suffering sister Solvieg, in a scene dominated by lush Quebec countryside.

But with his side film Berlin Encounters, the Canadian director rarely deviates from a still-camera composition, where Antoninus and five women who are forever after his neck – including his wife, a tax collector in a pink suit, and a young woman. who wants it. stolen computer returned – always keep a distance of each other and never come close.

“I admit it is very approved for a pandemic,” says Cote Hollywood journalist about his 13th film shot during the pandemic and slated for a world premiere in Berlin. Except the fact that the script for Social hygiene was written in 2015, long before the COVID-19 crisis, when Cote was on vacation in Sarajevo.

And the Canadian director always wanted long stills and elusive human connections to Social hygiene, where Antonin and the women of his life appear like potted plants as they joust verbally in the wilderness of Quebec. “The characters try to be very intense and serious, but they end up getting lost in the landscapes,” Cote explains.

The Canadian author is no stranger to Berlin, having seen his 2013 drama Vic + Flo saw a bear winning the Silver Bear, her 2016 drama Boris without Beatrice nominated for the Golden Bear and his 11th film, Anthology of the ghost town, take part in the Berlinale in 2019.

Hollywood journalist caught up with Cote to talk about “cinema in the making” during a pandemic and to create in Antonin a “charming delinquent” adapted to the waking culture of today.

Your film opens with socially distant characters from the Quebec countryside and never departs from it. Short of filling the screen with actors in a grid of Zoomscape squares, is Social hygiene not the perfect pandemic era movie?

I know it sounds like it, but no! The film was written five years ago during a long stay in Sarajevo. The original title was Social hygiene and the original form of it was those long monologues / dialogues in nature between distant characters. Last summer, some actors asked me if I had a project. They couldn’t work and wanted to do something. I found these 45 pages of dialogue without structure and decided to do something with it. I understand this may sound like a “pandemic movie”.

Why did you choose those long stationary camera shots with most of the characters glued to their position on the ground like action figures? Due to the constraints of the pandemic?

We always imagined it that way. I think that the content of these dialogues is frontal and very ironic and does not always correspond to the contemporary nature of our relations. I wanted to use a very rigid theatrical form to remind the viewer that we are always trying to control our image / our words in the world, the world of today or the world of any period. We seek balance and acceptance from others. The less we move, the less mistakes we can make.

The fixed array means there are no close-up reaction shots, no allowing the audience to react to a particular camera framing or direct their gaze. Is this your way of undermining the traditional language of movie storytelling?

It’s one way of looking at it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a rejection of mainstream cinema. The movie is very playful, just like my previous movie was (Wilcox). I appreciate [distancing] effects to avoid assignment and identification. I like it when you feel “the cinema in the making”. It’s obviously a bit cerebral and not for everyone. But I find these paintings and the figurine approach to be fun. The characters try to be very intense and serious but they end up getting lost in the landscapes.

The film sees Antonin jousting forever with five women mostly in period attire: his sister, his wife, an obsession with love, a tax inspector in pink, and young Aurora in modern business attire. Was it done to make their verbal confrontations less aggressive and more ironic and comedic for the audience?

Absolutely. They are all from different eras. It’s also confusing and I like it. In the end, what remains is the fun of words and colorful speech. The film was never imagined as something narrative with strong psychological implications. I don’t even feel that the film is trying to say anything about the state of our contemporary societies. It’s more like a fun escape. We need it.

Why choose an open-air battlefield, where words become weapons, as opposed to the usual interior settings of mannered dramas?

The answer is in your question. Removing the usual kitchen sink settings has been very liberating. The outer battlefields are something I will remember [Laughs].

Aurore, who has followed Antonin, finds him and demands the return of her laptop after a car break-in and repairs to the car itself. Why does your only contemporary character use Greek mythology to call Antonin a “thug” and a “miserable pickpocket”?

I like that Aurore is the youngest and the most spiritual and utopian. She is romantic and always believes in the empathy that human beings are capable of. She is a breath of fresh air and ends up facing the dandyism of Antoninus on the verge of cynicism. He is the most active, the most mysterious character, able to have fun and dance. She moves and participates in the dynamics of the film.

Even in a scene where Antonin has a brief argument with another man, they do not meet physically. Was this a rule for the film: no human contact?

I wonder if I would have made the same movie without the pandemic? I think so. Everything seems to have been done because of the pandemic. Characters thrive on contacts and they end up having none. It’s funny and that’s what I wanted, but I admit it’s very pandemic approved.

You wrote the screenplay in 2015 while on vacation in Sarajevo and in a state of alienation. Is Social hygiene the perfect comedy for the times of the pandemic, where people lost in the lockdown struggle to find their way around?

It’s really weird. I shouldn’t say it was a premonition.

You are not known for comedies. Why make one now?

I made a movie in 2015 called Boris without Beatrice. For me, it was a comedy about the bourgeois taking themselves too seriously. It was not very well received. I wouldn’t call the film a failure, but I wanted a second attempt. I know I have this need for comedic expression in me. I constantly look at the world with supreme detachment. Political correctness and the new awakened culture are raging now and that makes me think a lot. Antonin is a sort of dandy, an elegant response to that. He would like to be seen as a unique and charming offender, but the world keeps reminding him to behave a certain way. It’s funny.

The only close-ups are at the end of the movie, which is somewhat shocking as we’re seeing your cast’s faces for the first time in sharp focus. Why did you feel the need to do this?

It was calculated as a gift to the public for sure. I want the dialogue / monologues to be the only thing that matters in the movie. The characters are archetypes and vehicles for words. They are not full-fledged psychological entities. It’s a film about the thoughts and value of our words and actions, not the characters and faces of the actors.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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