Veering between profundity, faux profundity and a faintly discernible mockery of those who might mistake one for the other, Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté administers a thimbleful of COVID-era potion with “Social Hygiene,” which brought him the best director prize in the Berlinale Encounters sidebar (shared with Ramon and Silvan Zürcher for “The Girl and the Spider”). The tendency to dodge from sincerity to satire and vice versa is unmistakably self-serving, but parsing the foibles of this little comedy makes a pleasant diversion, for a film that largely amounts to stagey scenes of two people bellowing petty philosophies at each other across a blustery meadow.
In the first setup, composed of two-thirds sky and one third grassy field that rolls away to distant mountains, the dissipated Antonin (Maxim Gaudette) is disappointing his sister Solveig (Larissa Corriveau). Their very names may be reminiscent of Chekhov and Ibsen, and their declamations may have a ring of 19th-century dramaturgy to them, but these characters are carefully styled to appear somewhat timeless, and their exchanges are peppered with references to Volkswagens and discount mattresses. Solveig strafes Antonin with acid observations about his lack of direction, which Antonin plays up. He confesses to being a petty criminal and a pickpocket — more, it seems, as a response to his “deep moral fatigue at the ugliness of the world” than out of any dire necessity.
Over the course of seven more locked-off scenes, each set against a similarly airy, windy, rural backdrop of scudding clouds and changeable light, he will disappoint four more women: his wife, Eglantine (Evelyne Rompré), who wears a corseted 18th-century peasant dress; his would-be mistress, Cassiopée (Eve Duranceau), clad in a fussy Louis XVI gown; Rose (Kathleen Fortin), a tax-inspecting bureaucrat in a boxy Angela Merkel-style pink blazer; and Aurore (Eleonore Loiselle), one of his theft victims, strikingly modern in her skinny jeans and studded leather belt. In brief, handheld interludes between DP François Messier-Rheault’s otherwise steady, patient, wide tableaux, Aurore wanders through the forest, watches some cows, and at one point, quite enthrallingly, dances a strange and lovely body-popping solo in a clearing, to the brooding darkwave strains of Lebanon Hanover’s “Kiss Me Until My Lips Fall Off.” Anachronism is very much part of the point.
The film’s strange relationship to time is further heightened by the unusual inversion that is having the actors mostly standing stock still, ever separated by at least 10 feet, while tree branches, bushes and dappled sunshine change momentarily, sometimes dramatically, all around. And the sound design, credited to Jean-François Caissy, Frédéric Cloutier and Clovis Gouaillier, which emphasizes birdsong, breezes and the riffling of leaves, creates a sense of nature’s vastness in direct contrast to the dialogue, which runs in taut little conversational circles, swirling around the drain of ennui represented by Antonin.
Côté, whose eclectic filmography attests to his willingness to experiment with form and approach, reportedly wrote “Social Hygiene” several years ago, so it’s hard to say how much of the film’s stilted, mannerist presentation was part of its original conception and how much was mandated by the restrictive pandemic-era conditions under which it was shot. And it’s just about impossible to imagine how the film might have played to a non-pandemic-buffeted audience, or how lines like “I like fraternity, but I want to explore solitude” or “To kill time is insulting to eternity” might have landed a couple of years ago.
Given that impossibility, though, one of the movie’s more abstract frustrations comes from its lack of thematic application to the moment that its form seems to echo so uncannily. If anything, the story of “Social Hygiene” feels old-fashioned; it appears so primed to comment on physical separation, psychological alienation and other such very modish concerns that its preoccupation with one self-involved dilettante’s personal growth feels oddly passé. Not to mention that the five women, who are mostly portrayed as scolds or bourgeois sellouts against the comparatively free-thinking if comically down-in-the-mouth Antonin, are here to be sounding boards rather than characters in their own right. It’s a strangely regressive gender dynamic, for a film almost entirely concerned with gender dynamics.
At its best, “Social Hygiene” is playful, studded with amusing observations — Antonin saying he likes sitting in the front row at the cinema because “that way I’ll see the movie before anyone else,” or Cassiopée deadpanning, “It’s so sexy,” as two men mock-duel, dukes up, six feet apart, for her affections. At the very least, it’s an intellectually ticklish example of responding to filmmaking limitations with invention and droll wit. And even if you suspect there’s less here than meets the eye, it’s just 76 minutes long, so killing time with the willfully slight and sketchy “Social Hygiene” can’t possibly insult eternity too much.