Interviews #3 – Denis Côté

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Denis Côté (Perth-Andover, 1973), canadian filmmaker and producer. Mainly famous for his attitude towards experimentation and his artistic versatility, after founding his own production company and directing several shorts, in 2005 he starts directing his first feature film ‘Drifting Cities’ for which he gains Pardo d’oro at Locarno Film Festival. Three years later he writes and directs ‘All that she wants’, an impressing movie with a solid stylistic and directorial implant and he wins his first Pardo d’argento for Best director, won again in 2010 with ‘Curling’. From now on we can say it begins his golden era, made of movies such as dazzling ‘Vic + Flo saw a Bear’ and documentaries ‘Bestiaire’ and ‘Joy of man’s desiring’. He’s currently working on his last work ‘Boris without Beatrice’, arriving on the big screen in 2016.


Cinepaxy: Before beginning the interview we would like to thank you for accepting, we know you generally are not so disposed to such sort of things, so we thank you even more; we are honored to have this opportunity. Well, let’s start with a general question. Comparing your movies is not simple to extract a real connection. How can you describe this change of attitude, for example from ‘All that she wants’ to ‘Joy of man’s desiring’? In other words, with the passing of time have you felt a sort of maturation in your approach towards Cinema or do you think all your movies simply reflect on a single concept you wanted to express, outside of an increasing growth?

Denis Côté: It’s a very interesting question which is very difficult to answer. There is a strong attention towards the aesthetic aspect in my first two low-budget works, but I completely departed from this approach with ‘All that she wants’ in 2008; probably this used to concern my past knowledge as a cinephile. I have been influenced by so many directors and genres that I can safely say I had to release all my style in one way or another during that period. Then, with maturity, every project have been connected to a budget reality and a different level of ambition. If you take “laboratory films” like ‘Carcasses’, ‘Bestiaire’ or ‘QTJD’, it’s clear my attitude for experimentation rather than than for a straight-forward narrative. I realized those films on very small budgets and resources and without a script. We are usually only three-four collaborators and we don’t have any pressure from distributions or sales agents. These films are made by a very free Denis Côté, working on the edge of fiction and documentary. I had no fixed recipes for them, we just tried and experimented on language. Regarding bigger narrative films like ‘Curling’ and ‘Vic+Flo’, I felt it was time to direct actors, write dialogues and reflect on plot structure. Even though those films are still arthouse or demanding, I had to think about a larger audience. Recent ones look more polished or conventional, I need both qualities to be sure I can work in any conditions. Of course it’s a great satisfaction when someone feels QTJD and Curling are made by the same director but it doesn’t happen often. Perhaps I’d say my signature is a bit schizophrenic considering from one film to another but honestly one of my aims is to surprise people and make it impossible for them to say they like all my films equally. That would be really sad, it would be the sign of being unable to reinvent myself.

CP: Your way of filming is really addictive, you own the extraordinary power of arousing sensations from simple or forgotten situations, as the zoo in ‘Bestiaire’, the singular car deposit in ‘Carcasses’ or the factory in ‘Joy of man’s desiring’.

DC: Yes, my goal is to always find an original perspective on which realize these projects. I always try to keep my works short, fortunately they turn out to be surprising thanks to my way of seeing at certain situations. I like to transcend conventionality of my subjects, moreover I believe you have to be both humble and, at the same time, pretentious for getting into a zoo and start shooting a movie. The question which is pretty difficult to respond is: “How can I realise an original work starting from the most conventional subject?”.

CP: In this respect, what do you think is  the most efficient way to communicate to the mass nowadays? What do you think is the role of means of spread such as film festivals?

DC: I feel a bit confused when I hear people say things like: “Cinema is dead”, or when I see cynical/bored people thinking film festival is always the same as if commercial cinema couldn’t reinvent itself. If people and cinephiles say this, it’s because there are signs out there. I don’t think it’s very original feeling the need to make a conventional documentary about a car deposit, a zoo or generally about 21st century. Masterpieces have been made and I don’t pretend to add my own little work to an already famous list of superior films.

CP: Reflecting more from a purely thematic point of view, in particular on movies like ‘Vic + Flo’ and ‘All that she wants’ we can see the substantial part given to life negative influences, seen as ordinary part of a cruel and foolish, but also society as another monster that threats people in their everyday life. Those two concepts seem to have an important part on your Cinema. Is that it?

DC: Absolutely. Both in life and movies I am very touched by characters who think they can organise their own world and live far away from the ordinary one. Usually, it can’t stay that way for a very long time: society and its rules will either come and ruin what you achieved or they will reorganise the fragile system you created. Society is not evil unless you decide it is. Rules are not evil unless you decide they are. I never tried to show an evil world, I’d rather believe in the man, be on his side and accompany my characters in what they think is best for them, for their comfort and their survival. Sometimes they are right (like the romantic man in ‘Carcasses’), sometimes they are not (like the father in ‘Curling’), sometimes faith is stronger and more cruel than any good intention (like in ‘Vic+Flo’).

All that she wants (2008)

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CP: Therefore, the coexistence of man and the ecosystem surrounding turnes out to be unstable, but not because of an ontological issue. In this respect, we would like to ask you a question we think it is crucial for every director: do you believe in Cinema as a means to change world and people? Do you believe in Cinema as a perfect association of form and content?

DC: I don’t make films to change the world, I’m a very bad citizen and I am unable to carry any social or political messages in my films. I prefer ambiguity and the fact that it might exist a spectator which rejects a film of mine and another one which, on the contrary, appreciates it. Cinema is a very private thing for me: it’s between viewer and film. I get a bit uncomfortable when one exploits the film language to reach the masses with a message since Cinema shouldn’t be used for change the world. Our lives should rather change because of films. That’s different.

CP: This implies more an effort from spectator than from artist, an assumption well explained in analyzing Joy of man desiring’: here work communicates only via static images. Have you planned to carry on this stylistic trend in the future?

DC: I think ‘Bestiaire’ and ‘QTJD’ are closely linked and they achieve – or they try to achieve – what you are explaining. I will always be in favour of this approach but on a personal level I think I’ll stay away from it for a while. Once you’ve proved that you can make that sort of contemplative Cinema, it’s not long until people see a recipe behind it so that all this become overly systematic. Hopefully people will always see something new in my future films. I’m getting old and I won’t imprison myself in one specific signature or style.

CP:  Lastly, we would like to focus on a movie that, in our view, is essential part of nowaday’s cinema: we’re talking about ‘Bestiaire’. Your brutal approach, your immediate entrance in a world apparently uninteresting and uncommon: what was the main purpose that moved or convinced you to capture this kind of reality and what did you mean to disclose with a so peculiar direction?

DC: People reacted very positively to ‘Bestiaire’. The equation is simple Animal + Cage = Outrage. It’s as old as the world. If people liked the film it’s because of that simple hunch, I may agree with them but that’s not why I made it. I wanted to carry out an exercise in objectivity and observation. ‘Bestiaire’ doesn’t tell you what to think about zoos and it wasn’t made with any special intellectual or emotional purposes. It’s not an activist film. We edited the film like a picture book, without truly knowing whether it was targeted at a big screen, at some museums or if it was going to be just a collage of shots. We showed the zoo as an absurd place where people pay money to watch animals. For me it was an experiment on absurd. Later, we have discovered we couldn’t handle the power of our images: we couldn’t be objective or control the message. In the end the film leads to a sense of anguish and dread that we never expected.

Bestiaire (2012)

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