I Think We're Alone Now

Drifting states and isolated lives in the films of Denis Côté
by Adam Nayman  posted March 1, 2011
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

This article originally appeared in the catalog for the 2010 Viennale, which presented a retrospective of Denis Côté's work. Reprinted with permission.

Denis Côté's new film Curling, which kicks off TIFF Bell Lightbox's retrospective this weekend on the New Brunswick-born filmmaker and screens in New York this month as part of the New Directors/New Films series, is not pop cinema. But it does feature an iconic pop song in a scene where its preteen protagonist Julyvonne Sauvageau (Philomène Bilodeau) dances to a song chosen by her father Jean-Francois (Emmanuel Bilodeau). The track: '80s mall-pop-tartlet Tiffany's cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now."

There are several levels on which his selection feels utterly incongruous. The chirpy, propulsive melody and slick synthesizer beat are at odds with the characters' spartan environment and lifestyle. The Sauvageaus live in rural Quebec, in an old house overlooking the highway. It is also, relatively speaking, a golden-oldie, a song that would make sense for Julyvonne to listen to if the year were 1987, and not 2010. And this musical interlude is also just strange, period. As soon as the music begins, Julyvonne dances robotically, while her father sits stoically on the couch in an inscrutable domestic ritual.

For anyone familiar with the cinema of Denis Côté, though, "I Think We're Alone Now" will seem an appropriate choice. Maybe it's even a self-reflexive joke. If Côté's five features (not counting the 43-minute Enemy Lines, commissioned by the Jeonju Film Festival in 2010) can be said to share a single, overriding theme, it would be that of isolation. As Tiffany so memorably chirped: there doesn't seem to be anyone around.

A former film critic based in Montreal, Côté has never been drawn to the mainstream, whether in the cinema of others—when he was a writer, he used his platform to champion small, unconventional movies—or in his own artistic endeavors. In film after film, he has continued his own private drift towards the margins. "I feel small and uninspired in the city," Côté told me in 2008. "I don't own a car and I don't have a license so being [outside of the city] for me is like a dream, and is automatically inspiring. The countryside is like a myth for me, and therefore a place to conquer, a place that can 'be mine.'" It is in staking out such distant terrain that Côté has distinguished himself as perhaps the most interesting and idiosyncratic filmmaker to emerge from Canada over the past decade.

His searching sensibility was apparent from the very beginning of his first feature, Les états nordiques (Drifting States) (2005), a film that begins with an escape: Christian (Christian LeBlanc) is introduced in the process of euthanizing his terminally ill mother in her hospital room. It's a gesture that is legible as an act of mercy, but also as a spur to self-transformation. As if suddenly bereft of a great burden, Christian picks up and leaves Montreal for an out-of-the-way village on James Bay, where he finds work as a garbage collector.

The film's English-language title, Drifting States, is a metaphor for Christian's destabilized inner life. It's also a statement of aesthetic purpose on behalf of the director. The film ebbs and flows between the imperatives of documentary and drama. Although he shares a first name with his character, LeBlanc is a performer, not a subject, and Christian's arc from self-exile to gradual re-integration has been predetermined. But scenes of him interacting with the other inhabitants of Radisson, Quebec (population 400) have clearly been improvised. As the film goes on, Côté's interest seems to lie as much (if not more) with these incidental participants as it does with his protagonist, who remains a cipher.

Côté has said that he was after a kind of creative freedom while making Les états nordiques and while the film evinces liberation, it is finally deterministic: Christian's past literally catches up with him. By contrast, Côté's remarkable follow-up, Nos vies privées (Our Private Lives) (2007) is thrillingly open-ended. The set-up is at once simple and probably without precedent in (Canadian) cinematic history: comely Bulgarian expatriate Milena (Anastassia Liutova) invites the Sofia-based photographer Philip (Penko Gospodinov) with whom she's been having an online affair to join her at a cabin in the wilds of Quebec—to meet in the flesh, as it were.

The subject here is intimacy, which the lovers initially hunger for and then retreat from. What makes the film remarkable is the way that Côté stages this detachment. Scenes of intense lovemaking (dexterously shot by the cinematographer Rafaël Ouellet) give way to a pair of episodes in which Milena and Philip each have a harrowing independent encounter—which they then proceed to hide from the other. These sequences threaten to unbalance the film by pushing the action towards genre conventions (neo-noir and monster movie, respectively) while simultaneously shoring up its conceptual coherence. While the focus on a couple as opposed to a lone-wolf differentiates it from its predecessor, Nos vies privées is an even more provocative treatise on isolation, suggesting that neither desire nor proximity is necessarily a salve for loneliness.

Instead of staying with a loner protagonist or sheltered couple, Elle veut le chaos (All That She Wants) (2008) sketches a small, vicious circle of down-and-out characters: Coralie (Eve Duranceau) who lives with her (step?) father Jacob (Normand Lévesque) in an Arcadian backwater; Pierrot (Laurent Lucas), an ex-con returning from a stint in prison; and Alain (Réjean Lefrançois) the aging gangster who lives next door and has designs on opening a brothel (leading to an uncomfortable interest in Coralie); the pair of sullen Eastern European girls he plans to pimp out; a feral pack of thugs whose leader, Spaz, lives up to his name.

A kind of French-Canadian rural Gothic shot in gorgeous, high-contrast black-and-white, Elle veut le chaos is seen by some as the odd title out in Côté's filmography. For one thing, it's got more of a plot than either Les états nordiques or Our Private Lives, even if it doesn't seem to be in a hurry to enact it. There is also an increased emphasis on camera placement and movement, as if the director were trying for the first time to showcase his formal chops. Les états nordiques and Nos vies privées evinced a singular sensibility without being locked into any sort of obvious stylistic program. Here, though, the style is "slow cinema" all the way, all complex friezes and hypnotic tracking shots. In scene after scene, Côté makes it clear that he's playing with duration, distending the action so that the drama seems to play out in slow motion. If Elle veut le chaos is a grueling experience, it's also an essential episode in Côté's development, as the increasing confidence of his mise-en-scène dovetails with an interest in the landscape—bleak, blasted, unforgiving—as an active character rather than a simple backdrop.

Carcasses (2009) takes this idea even further even as it circles back to the hybridized nature of Les états nordiques: it is Côté's most successful attempt at what the critic Robert Koehler has termed "cinema-of-in-betweenness." Shot in Saint-Amable Quebec (which was also the location for Nos vies privées) it focuses on another isolated figure: Jean-Paul Colmor, a 74-year old junkman whose sprawling property looks like the dumping ground for Western Civilization. Colmor's claim to fame lies in the 4,000 cars littering the fields around his house, but his personal space is even more spectacularly cluttered; the sheer assemblage of degraded objects—piled on shelves, scattered on the floor, and stuck to the ceiling—suggests an interior-design magazine layout shot by Edward Burtynsky.

Côté's static DV camera renders the detritus tactile in a series of striking, symmetrical tableaux, but it's hard to take our eyes off Colmor, who prowls the grounds like a solitary king. What begins as an austere portrait of a rugged individualist changes at the midway mark into something else, however. After being more or less alone for the whole film, Colmor receives some unexpected visitors—a quartet of teenagers with Down's syndrome, who appear to have wandered onto his property from the woods. Their mystifying appearance challenges Carcasses' claims to authenticity—we're no longer watching a documentary—even as it deepens the film's engagement with reality beyond the junkyard.

"I'd say Carcasses is a reversal of Drifting States," Côté told me. "This time, we use documentary as a way to access fiction. One is cannibalizing the other. I still have the strong impression that by blending documentary and fiction, you can achieve something cinematically surprising or, if you'll excuse the pretension, something 'new.' It has something to do with the following question: 'OK, here's reality, I don't want to change it, I must respect it, I mustn't re-create it, I mustn't alter it but... how can I control it?'" Carcasses is an exercise in control, but its underlying themes are wild and unruly. Colmor's retreat from society appears to be self-willed, but what about these intruders? Some critics opined that Côté was drawing an insulting parallel between these handicapped characters and the discarded automobiles littering Colmor's property. Less important than the youths' symbolic function (which the director has denied) is the simple fact of their appearance onscreen. Simply put, these are not people whom we're used to seeing in a movie—and even then, it's usually only ever in a journalistic or saccharine context. In this way, Carcasses reveals itself as a double-edged portrait of marginality.

With Curling, Côté has executed another about-face: away from the semi-documentary format and back into strictly narrative territory. Curling doesn't have very much in common with Carcasses, but it does connect strongly to all his other films, and in very specific ways. The isolated father/daughter dynamic has been borrowed—and dramatically refined from—Elle veut le chaos, as has the fact that Julyvonne's mother resides in an institution. And, as in Les états nordiques, Côté gives us a lead character whose inner psychology is utterly opaque. The difference is that this unknowability is actually the film's subject as opposed to a byproduct of an experimental production.

Played by Bilodeau with an unsettling, furtive delicacy, Jean-Francois (whose choice of facial hair has led to his being dubbed "Mr. Moustache" by his friends) is damaged goods. He holds down two jobs as a cleaner—one at a hotel, the other in a bowling alley that seems permanently stuck in the 1970s—and he is devoted to Julyvonne, but in problematic ways: he keeps her out of school and in the house most of the time. This over-protectiveness seems rooted in a fear of the outside world, yet as the film progresses, it's clear that he's stunting Julyvonne's growth by sheltering her. Freed for an afternoon at the bowling alley, her behaviour is more that of a delighted child than a girl on the verge of adolescence. The enforced closeness isn't healthy, but the real problem is the hidden emotional gulf that opens up in its wake—a motif of traumatic experiences withheld from a loved one rhymes strongly with Nos vies privées.

At a press conference in Locarno—where the film won two Leopards for Best Director and Best Actor—Côté responded to a journalist's questions about his "weirdo" protagonist by pointing out that people like Jean-Francois are hardly unusual. They live and work among us, and they do their level best to function despite difficult personal issues. The film doesn't condone Jean-Francois' erratic behavior, especially not his response after happening upon the aftermath of an accident. But there is no judgment, either. In the same way, Côté doesn't present Julyvonne as a victim. Some of her issues are inherited—like her father, she chooses to keep a horrific discovery private -but she's also impressively self-sufficient. And she has another possible role model: Isabelle (Sophie Desmarais) the young woman hired by the boss of Jean-Francois' bowling alley as eye candy. Her sexy goth-punk exterior—dyed red hair, stark makeup—implies an attempt to separate herself from her peers, yet she's friendly and open with her co-worker and his daughter (and suffers her superior's leering with bemused patience).

That Curling is beautifully made shouldn't come as a surprise. Côté's technical abilities have improved with each outing, and he's employed the excellent cinematographer Josée Deshaies, who has also shot films for Nicolas Klotz and Jacques Nolot (and who shot Elle veut le chaos). The frosty color palette, skillfully delineated interior spaces, and precisely managed silences are the works of a maturing filmmaker coming into his own.

What is surprising, though, is the sense of optimism that builds beneath the film's meticulously chilled surfaces. The title refers to an eccentric but beloved Canadian sport that is played on ice and requires close teamwork. Invited to participate, Jean-Francois demurs but remains fascinated, both by the physics—heavy stones are slid down the ice—and also the nomenclature, which speaks of "protecting the house:" keeping your opponents' stones from getting close to the center of the surface. Without ever overstating the point, or giving it too much screen time, Côté turns the sport into a plangent metaphor for Jean-Francois's longing for connection, and if he's too smart a filmmaker to fall into inspirational platitudes, he's also honest enough to allow his character the possibility of growth. Curling ends on what must be the most physically crowded shot of Côté's career: literally speaking, his characters are no longer alone. That sharp-eyed viewers will also catch an actual question mark tucked into the corner of the frame may simply be a coincidence of location shooting, or else a joke along the lines of that not-so incongruous Tiffany song. Or, best of all, an acknowledgment that this restless, adventurous director isn't interested in endings—he'd rather that you draw your own conclusions. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Emmanuel Bilodeau in Curling, directed by Denis Côté
Photo Gallery: I Think We're Alone Now


March 4–10, 2011 The New Auteurs: Denis Côté


Adam Nayman is a film critic living and working in Toronto. He writes for Eye Weekly, Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, LA Weekly, and other publications.

More articles by Adam Nayman