Berlin: Denis Cote on His "Pandemic-Approved" Comedy 'Social Hygiene'

Courtesy of Lou Scramble
Courtesy of Lou Scramble; Thomas Niedermueller/WireImage

The Canadian auteur rarely strays from a fixed-camera tableau and socially distanced characters on screen, even though his 13th film has been six years in the making, well before the COVID-19 crisis.

Denis Cotes' absurdist French language comedy Social Hygiene opens with a wide shot of Antonin, a philosopher-cum-petty thief, standing in a field more than two meters from his long-suffering sister Solvieg in a scene dominated by a lush Quebec countryside.

But with with his Berlin Encounters sidebar film, the Canadian director rarely departs from a fixed-camera composition, where Antonin and five women who are forever after his neck — including his wife, a pink-suited tax collector and a young woman who wants her stolen computer returned — always stand at a distance to one another and never get close up physically.

"I admit that it’s very pandemic-approved," Cote tells The Hollywood Reporter about his 13th movie shot during the pandemic and set for a world premiere in Berlin. Except for the fact that the script for Social Hygiene was written in 2015, well before the COVID-19 crisis, while Cote was on holiday in Sarajevo.

And the Canadian director always intended long static shots and elusive human connections for Social Hygiene, where Antonin and the women in his life appear like potted plants as they verbally joust in the wilds of Quebec. "The characters are trying to be very intense and serious, but they end up being lost in the landscapes," Cote explains.

The Canadian auteur is no stranger to Berlin, having seen his 2013 drama Vic + Flo Saw a Bear earn the Silver Bear, his 2016 drama Boris Without Beatrice nominated for a Golden Bear, and his 11th film, Ghost Town Anthology, compete at the Berlinale in 2019.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Cote to talk "cinema in the making" during a pandemic and creating in Antonin a "charming delinquent" suited to today's woke culture.

Your movie opens on, and never strays from, characters socially distanced in the Quebec countryside. 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 seems 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 the wild between distanced characters. Last summer, some actors asked me if I had a project. They couldn’t work and wanted to do something. I found those 45 pages of structureless dialogues and decided to do something with it. I understand it can look like a ‘pandemic film.’

Why did you choose this long, fixed-camera shots with most characters stuck to their positions in the field like figurines? Because of the pandemic constraints?

It was always imagined it like that. I feel the content of those dialogues are frontal and very ironic and don’t always match the contemporary nature of our relationships. I wanted to use a very stiff 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’re looking for balance and acceptation from others. The less we move, the less we can make mistakes.

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

It’s a way of seeing it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a rejection of mainstream cinema. The film is very playful, just like my previous film was (Wilcox). I like [distancing] effects to avoid affectation and identification. I like when you feel ‘cinema in the making.’ It’s obviously a little cerebral and not for everybody. But I think these tableaux and the figurine approach is funny. The characters are trying to be very intense and serious but they end up being lost in the landscapes.

The film sees Antonin forever jousting with five women mostly in period dress: his sister, his wife, a love obsession, a tax inspector in pink and young Aurore in modern street clothes. Was this done to make their verbal confrontations less aggressive and more ironic and comical to the audience?

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

Why choose an outdoor battleground, where words become weapons, as opposed to the usual indoor settings for mannered dramas?

The answer is in your question. The abolition of the usual kitchen-sink settings was very liberating. Outdoor battlegrounds is something I will remember [Laughs].

Aurore, who has been following Antonin, finds him and demands return the of her laptop computer after a car break in and repairs to the car itself. Why does your only contemporary character use Greek mythology to call Antonin a “rogue” and a “wretched pickpocket"?

I like that Aurore is the youngest and the most spiritual and utopian. She’s a romantic and somehow still believes in the empathy human beings are capable of. She’s a breath of fresh air and ends up confronting Antonin’s dandyism bordering on cynicism. She’s the most active character, the most mysterious one, capable of fun and dancing. She’s on the move and helping the dynamic of the film.

Even in a scene where Antonin briefly spars with another man, they don't meet physically. Was this a rule for the film: No human contact?

I’m wondering if I would’ve made the same film without the pandemic? I think so. Everything seems like it was made because of the pandemic. Characters thrive for contacts and they end up having none. It’s funny and that’s what I wanted, but I admit that it’s very pandemic-approved.

You wrote the script in 2015 while on vacation in Sarajevo and in a state of alienation. Is Social Hygiene the perfect comedy for pandemic-era times, where people lost in lockdown struggle to get their bearings?

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

You're not known for comedies. Why do one now?

I made a film in 2015 called Boris Without Beatrice. For me it was a comedy about bourgeois people taking themselves way too seriously. It was not that 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 woke culture is raging now and it makes me think a lot. Antonin is a sort of dandy, an elegant answer to that. He would love to be seen as a unique, charming delinquent, but the world keeps reminding him to behave in a certain way. It’s funny.

The only close ups are at the end of the film, which is somewhat jarring as we see the faces of your cast for the first time in sharp focus. Why did you feel a need to do that?

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

Interview edited for length and clarity.