Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly
In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.
Second Run DVD
13 April 2020Other
"It took me few years to recognize that I was always writing about outcasts or people living a little bit outside of the world - characters who obey their own laws and conscience" explains director Denis Côté. His 2010 drama Curling, set against the winter landscape of rural Québec, centres on loner Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau), and his daughter Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau), who he insists never leaves their home. By night he works at a deserted bowling alley and during the day in a rundown motel. Julyvonne's encroaching adolescence and growing curiosity about the outside world threatens to disrupt their relationship, as the daughter seeks to connect with the world her father is fearful of.
This continues a thematic thread that can be found in Côté's other work, including Vic+Flo Saw a Bear (2013), that is set in the backwoods of Québec and sees two ex-cons struggle to isolate themselves from the world -- Vic's probation officer and a mysterious woman refusing to let them escape their pasts. Meanwhile, Curling's Julyvonne recalls Coralie (Eve Duranceau) in his third feature All That She Wants (2008) – a young girl who wants to leave the backwater town and whose mother is absent from the home.
Both girls look outward, and while Julyvonne is cared for by her father, it's unclear whether Jacob (Normand Levesque) is Coralie's father. In his recent work Ghost Town Anthology (2019), Côté continues to deal with the theme of isolation, where following the death of a Simon Dubé in a small town, strangers begin appearing, including a group of children wearing masks. But notable is Adèle's (Larissa Corriveau) relationship reaches a juncture, where she wants to leave the isolated town, but her property developer boyfriend wants to remain – another woman in Côté's work looking to escape her isolation.
Second Run's region free Blu-Ray release of Curling is a new HD transfer of the film, sourced from original materials and approved by Côté. In conversation with PopMatters, the filmmaker discusses the self-reflective relationship of a film and its author, the critic as a bridge between the filmmaker and the audience, and the need to trust in yourself.
'What we are' versus 'who we feel we are' can often be out of synch. I've spoken with directors who have told me that it took a number of films before they felt they could call themselves a filmmaker. When did you feel that you could call yourself a filmmaker?
…You either decide to assume your artistic feeling very early on by telling people around you, "I am an artist", or, "I am a filmmaker", or, you go for a more pragmatic definition. For example, when you actually earn a living and pay your rent with your status. Let's just say I was definitely a filmmaker after my third film, All That She Wants (2008).
Discussing the relationship of the film to it's filmmaker, writer/director Rebecca Miller remarked to me: "If they are made honestly, all pieces of art are self-portraits of the person making them." Would you agree? Also, in regards to the cultural belief of a photograph stealing a part of the person's soul, by giving yourself over to the intensity of the creative process, does the film capture a part of your soul?
I'd agree, and somehow you're always making the same film, and we say a lot about ourselves in our work. It always depends on the amount of make-up and disguise you put on the film. After twelve feature films, I can definitely see some recurrent motives in my stories, and it's conscious when you become infatuated with your style and signature. But it's usually and more interestingly unconscious.
I can say that most of the main characters in my films show a side or two, or even many sides of my personality, and there's no use trying to create a film if it's not to exorcise something that is broken, or wrong about yourself.
How do you look back on the experience of making Curling, and has your memory of it changed with time?
I have extremely pleasant memories about this experience. The story is simple, my line was clear, and I only had two main characters. My previous film All that She Wants (2008), had been a little complicated with too many intentions and characters, and I had just finished a very weird low budget documentary essay, Carcasses (2009). I was coming back from the chaos and euphoria of Cannes with Carcasses, and Curling was my 'quest for peace and maturity', and that's what it became. The team was great and the weather conditions were so extreme at times that it was exciting.
If you were to have made the film now rather than in 2010, how dramatically would that alter the film we'd see?
… I hate to say it, but I really like the film the way it is! With time I've become better with dialogue, so maybe I'd be a little more generous and less mysterious with the audience. I don't regret the films I've made – they're who I was at that period, and one must accept them.
Larry Fessenden, he spoke of how a film is abandoned. Would you agree?
I see film as a creative experiment in time. It's an x-ray of a moment, a step in the course of your career. It has to be shared, and I have no problem abandoning and assuming a new film.
I hear stories of filmmakers who don't want to leave the editing room after 15 to 25 weeks. Theoretically, a film can be improved or enhanced and always be better, but you can always see when a film is overworked or overedited. Working too much on a film can harm it and kill its soul.
I've made 12 features in 14 years, so we can undoubtly say that I work fast, and I quickly assume the final result. You can't fight against what the film wants to be.
A theme in Curling is isolation, which sees the protective father attempt to distance the outside world from the safe space he has created for his daughter. It touches upon the conflict most visceral in introverts – the desire for one's own space versus the need to belong to one's community. Thematically, the film also looks to how actions motivated by love can be harmful, and the adolescent struggle to discover themselves by escaping the shadow of their elders.
The cinematography of Curling emphasises this theme along with your desire to create an observational style/aesthetic -- the audience positioned as voyeuristic observers. How do you approach the cinematography as a collaborative element with the story and characters, the themes and ideas?
Much of the time I have the same dilemma. Curling's subject is very psychological: the visceral conflicts of the introverts, like you say. In Vic+Flo Saw a Bear, the subject was a lesbian love story about people struggling with the necessity to reconnect with society. In Ghost Town Anthology (2019), I was addressing the issue of rural isolation and xenophobia. All of those subjects demand a strong knowledge of certain social dynamics.
When I write, I do my research but I fight the impostor syndrome with my subjects. Then I come back to one essential thing: cinema, its language, its ambiguities, its open endings, its poetic license. Then I give myself liberties and if I get tormented by something I am not (a sociologist, a political commentator, a concerned citizen, a messenger), and if I become obsessed with social realistic cinema, then I get nowhere.
Right now, I'm writing about female sexuality and the dilemma is kicking in, believe me. At some point, you reject certain parts of the 'reality of your subject' and you start thinking in terms of poetry and aesthetics only. Then you hope you will find a balance without over-intellectualizing everything.
Interviewing filmmaker Sean Brosnan for My Father Die (2016), he explained: "I know a lot of friends who pick their themes first or they'll pick a story and then say: 'What do I want to explore?' I find for me that is very limiting because I just like to explore a world and its characters; to see what theme comes out of that and to let the story dictate it." Each storyteller takes a different approach. But to speak about theme, are you attentive to specific themes from the outset or is it a journey of discovery?
It took me few years to recognize that I was always writing about outscasts or people living a little bit outside of the world - characters who obey their own laws and conscience. You don't have to impose a theme on yourself or ask, "What do I want to explore?" It naturally comes from your personality.
Of course, if you are obsessed with the new trends in filmmaking and what is in fashion right now, or if you work to earn a good living and to sell your work, then you might want to corrupt or to force something out of your real personality. The audience will judge you on your level of honesty, but I don't believe in forcing a subject onto yourself.
Novelist Ray Bradbury said, "Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing." As well as it being a journey of discovery, is there an unconscious dimension to writing, in which ideas and characters are given to you? Does this mean that not every choice in the filmmaking process is a conscious one?
The day you start trusting who you are: your ego, style and vision, your cinephilia background and your place in the world, the dilemma between the conscious and the unconscious disappears. For a while, like many artists, I was borrowing ideas from other people's work. I was always second-guessing my choices and asking for a second and third opinion.
Nowadays, maybe it's a twisted ego talking, but I give into the philosophy: "If that just came out of myself, it's good by definition." It doesn't mean it's artistically good, it means my intuition right now is what I should follow because I believe in myself. Following that rule can give surprising results. You gain in humility and you accept humiliation, you laugh at the stupidity of some half-baked ideas, or you go full speed ahead and assume that new spark that's made of intuition, and trust in yourself.
Film critic Jean-François Rauger wrote in his review of Curling for The Guardian, "You gradually realize that this is a brilliant reworking of Psycho…" It's a critique one finds impossible to put aside, and while not my own critique, what are your thoughts on the relationship between the two films?
I was a film critic from 1994 to 2005, and it's a creative job I have a lot of respect for. The job of a good critic (someone who has the knowledge and a perspective on the history of cinema), is to give (new) meaning to the films. I know the reflex of many filmmakers is to laugh at these absurd lectures of our films, and of course, I never thought for a second about Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) in the creation of Curling -- Rauger knows it as well.
The artist and the audience have a very abstract relationship -- there's a void between them. Like a good critic, Rauger is filling that void by creating a creative footbridge between our intentions, and the audience's expectations and desires when they watch a film, neither of which he knows much about. The critic is the essential missing link – they're a smuggler.
One of the aspects of Curling I appreciate is the sense of incompleteness. You have not committed to venturing down narrative avenues, and instead of making a series of choices that creates clarity, you have taken the opposite approach.
It's obviously a quality and a problem of the film. The story is obvious and is about connecting with others: a young girl has no friends, doesn't have much of a secret garden and has no connection with the world. She will make some friends, whoever they are -- dead bodies in the snow. She has an introvert father who is paranoid about the world and doesn't want anything to do with its laws or schools. When he discovers a dead kid on the road, he will do what he knows best, which is to hide and dissimulate.
For a lot of people, what I just wrote is not explicit enough in the film. They see the film as a slow exercise in frustrating open endings and non-conclusions. My films are for active viewers, people who are excited by the idea of having to fill some playful narrative gaps -- I always lose the passive viewer-type.
Watching Ghost Town Anthology (2019) for the first time, drew attention to Curling's unconventional approach to storytelling. While Ghost Town Anthology has a clear beginning, a dramatic incident from which the story unfolds, Curling does not – we enter the lives of the father and daughter in a random moment. Neither Curling or Ghost Town Anthology end in a decisive way, instead they capture the authenticity of everyday life, which isn't a tidy series of defined acts, but moments of time that bleed into one another.
I wrote Ghost Town Anthology reminding myself of the fun of the Curling experience. Both films definitely share the unspectacular in their form: no fancy camera work, the use of natural light and no music. I must admit that I was looking for Curling's simplicity and purity with Ghost Town Anthology, but it was harder since it was an ensemble cast affair.
Nearly a decade later, my relationship with narrative clarity has definitely evolved. I don't know if it's for the better or worse, but with ten main characters, you are more careful and aware with the mysterious aspects, or the plot-holes of the script.
I'm not sure I was thinking that much about the viewers when I wrote Curling. Doing many Q&As and dealing with frustrated audiences change your relationship with the future audience of your work. I want to maintain a respect for the art of storytelling and filmmaking, without alienating the audience just for the fun of provocation.
Bestiaire (2012) was a good eye-opener because the whole project was an open space in which you could put so much thought, and so many intentions into it. I had a fascinating exchange with the audiences from all around the world, and I still remember telling my editor when we started working on Vic+Flo Saw a Bear, "Let's think about the audience this time?" He replied, "Who is the audience?" I said, "I don't know, but at least let's pretend it's there somewhere."
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: "You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it." If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
I wouldn't use this formulation. I'm always the master of puppets and even if I don't like the term "playing", we can say fairly that I play with the expectations of the audience. The only film I made that is less about me and almost completely about the audience is Bestiaire. The whole film works depending on your relationship with the animal kingdom and the existence of zoos. To this day, I still say that I had no intentions in making that film, but I still get congratulations for making an anti-zoo film. Oh well.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me, "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
Making films doesn't change you and cinema doesn't change the world. It changes your experience with, and it influences your way of connecting with the world. I see a difference, and with each new film I offer a version of myself, a version of my views on the world. But I don't give my soul to people.
Nobody knows how serious filmmaking is in the life of a filmmaker. A lot of filmmakers make films for fun, to earn a living, and to be part of a group. They are not cinephiles, it's not a passion, and the level of urgency in their work is debatable. For others, the need for expression with that particular medium is much more vital. But nobody can really know and judge while watching a film.
I made films that are essential to me and my balance. I made films for fun, and it's the same thing with watching films. The transformative power of cinema and art exists, it's there, but I'm not ready to make a dogma out of it.
Risker, Paul. "Carol Morley | THE FALLING". Starburst. 24 April 2015.
Risker, Paul. Interview with Director Christoph Bel. FrightFest. (article lost)
Risker, Paul. "Interview with Director Rebecca Miller on her film Maggie's Plan". Flux Magazine. 2016.
Risker, Paul. Larry Fessenden interview. Unpublished.
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