Berlin Winner Denis Cote on New Film ‘Social Hygiene,’ ‘Boring’ Radical Filmmaking, the Need for Male Humility

Social Hygiene
Credit: Lou Scamble

Antonin (Maxim Gaudette, “Polytechnique”) stands in lovely grass fields and proclaims his dissent. The world, embodied by the three women in his life, want him to buckle under, get a decent job (gainfully employed sis Solveig), remake his marriage (long-suffering wife Eglantine) or make the movie he’s always talking about (love obsession Cassiopée). Another woman, dressed in pink, turns out to be his tax inspector. But Antonin’s having nothing of it. He prefers to sleep in a friend’s car and get by robbing tourists.

Antonin and other characters stand at a healthy social distance of far more than two meters. There’s a hint of wind in many scenes. But the idea for “Social Hygiene” came to Côté way before COVID-19, he explains. The highest profile director at this year’s Berlinale Encounters hated to Variety about his latest feature before its world premiere on March 3. Cote, in interview, flows. Here are just four highlights from a longer conversation.

Viewers will be immediately struck at the social distancing of the characters. Yet the film, as a project, pre-dates COVID-19….

I know I’ll have to answer the question about whether it’s a pandemic film. Is there such thing as a pandemic film? I’m struggling with the idea that though it was written five years ago, it was called already called “Social Hygiene,” and was planned to be shot in giant landscapes with actors five meters from each other and suddenly five years later it fits perfectly to the rules of shooting in a pandemic. I was not planning to write a real narrative film. I was completely intoxicated with Swiss author Robert Walser, who was a drifter writer, he just walked around with a very ironic way of looking at things and wrote about his observations, I was completely intoxicated by his style and I was talking like him in my head.

The first shot is a bold statement which sets out the restrictions that you challenge the audience – and yourself – to accept. But how did you edit, both inside the shots, and their extension?

It’s funny you talk about restriction: Most of my films are imagined within a framework of restrictions. I need rules when I make a film and it really helps follow this guidelines. This new film was quite terrifying because now I think a lot about the audience. I certainly don’t make long shots to bore the audience. The game of having long shots and keep them interested is what obsesses me the most. When do you cut a long shot? An editor once told me: You cut when there’s nothing more to see. That can seem a little abstract but it’s very, very true. Over the last few years, we’ve had a lot of slow films, slow cinema, extreme long shots that worked as provocation. But a lot of filmmakers are failing at this exercise because it gets too boring or too slow and they just think is radical.

So what is you’re film really about?

The film could be a comment about social media today. We try to keep control of our image in society and social media, The film plays with this . In the film, we have this man child who would like to remain a man child forever. But he’s surrounded by all these tough women who are waiting for him to grow up. That could be a sort of comment on our new political correctness today. So I’m sort of on the periphery about this subject, human relations. But there’s no clear message, no manifesto. We are just playing. We are beating about the bush.

Masculinity’s in crisis, trying to adapt. But your film doesn’t offer any solutions. As you say, it’s not a manifesto….

If you let me go a little bit outside the film, I’m a 47-year-old straight white guy and I’ve been lucky to make a film every year for the last ten years. I have privileges, power, I do what I want. Somehow now, since about two years ago, especially in Canada and maybe in other countries, I am being asked to be much more humble about everything. I need to think about my place in this world as a white man and I agree with that. I believe in the multiplication of new voices and now in Canada there are new measures to help indigenous people, women, different races, populations and I totally agree about that. And the local institutions support a 50.50, men and women. I support that. But since two years ago I also think there is a little bit of white male “annihilation.” It’s not only 50-50. I’m in a situation where I can’t answer anything, I can’t get angry. I need to find my place in to this new world.