I Am a Cinephile: An interview with Denis Cote
At first glance, Denis Côté’s films, including Drifting States (2005), Bestiaire (2012), Vic and Flo Saw a Bear (2013) and Boris Without Beatrice (2016) don’t have much in common. Yet they are all unexpected journeys. In Drifting States, the journey takes us to the world of drifters, as the main character, Christian, performs a euthanasia on his mother and leaves his hometown to wander in vast empty landscapes. In Vic and Flo two lesbian lovers who just got out of prison try to find themselves in the world while spending time in a forest. In Boris Without Beatrice, a wealthy businessman must suddenly deal with the deep depression of his wife who’s a politician. And in Bestiaire, this wondrous world is actually of animals—a meditation on how we look at them and on their staring back, a mutual relationship depicted over the four seasons in different settings, such as a drawing course, a safari park and a taxidermist’s workshop. In most of these films, Côté blends fiction and documentary in ways that make us question our own understanding of what is real and what isn’t, while instilling a sense of curiosity that is infectious.
In anticipation of the premiere of his new film, A Skin So Soft (2017), Kinoscope spoke to Côté during the 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where the filmmaker participated as a mentor of the Future Frames section.*
Let’s start with the most basic question – how did you become a filmmaker?
When I was young I was in a family where there weren’t many books. It was not a poor family, but my parents were not really connected to culture. I am 43 years old, which is important because my adolescence coincided with the appearance of the VCR in the mid 1980s. When you didn’t have much money and were living outside Montreal, suddenly you had a VCR and video clubs and video-tapes everywhere. Most of the movies you could find in were horror movies. So I rented and watched all these bloody films, zombies and cannibals. I was probably too young to watch this cinema, cannibal films and stuff, mainly from Europe, not much Hollywood. I became an encyclopedia of horror cinema. Bad stuff, bad cinema.
I saw Dario Argento’s films that were much more artistic. And when I was around fifteen or sixteen, I considered making films. At eighteen I went to college but had no friends there, because it was very far. All I could do then was to concentrate on cinema. My teacher was my best friend and we had a list of films we had to watch. Pasolini, Godard, Fassbinder, Cassavetes, Pialat, Zulawski. I was amazed and it was obvious I wanted to be a filmmaker. I never went to university after that, never been to film school. I was more of a rocker, I had very long hair and organized concerts, but was always at the local cinémathèque, watching three, four films a day, and losing girlfriends because of cinema… I was too passionate.
One day I was asked if I wanted to talk about cinema on the radio… for free! I did that for four years and then they asked me if I’d like to write for a newspaper. I was twenty-four and had never touched a computer. It was 1999! They said, “Don’t make us laugh. Go see that film and tomorrow morning bring us back a diskette with the text.” I borrowed a computer from my friend who told me how to use it. I wrote my review and they said, “Very nice. Be back next week. We will give you your desk and computer and will hire. You are our film editor.” It was a small newspaper but had good readership.
What did you usually write about?
I would write a full page on an Abbas Kiarostami retrospective and then two or three lines on Spiderman. That is how I made my reputation as a film critic. In 2005, I made my first film, Drifting States. I really didn’t know what I was making. When it was finished, I watched it with my editor and we thought, “Is it a fiction, is it a documentary, what is it?” It was really exciting! Then I heard that Locarno Film Festival was interested in the film. I was like, “What is Locarno?” We sent the film and won the main award in the video competition. That was the beginning of my career. After that I made a film every year.
When you made your first feature film, did you know how to work with camera?
Yes, I had made short films before that, because I wanted to be a filmmaker, not a film critic. I made something like ten short films between 1995 and 2005. All on mini-DV, VHS, Super8. The quality now is barely watchable. Some of these films exist, some of them I don’t know.
You always write your scripts?
I have made 10 feature films, five of them have scripts and five of them don’t. You saw the film with animals, Bestiaire. We visited a zoo and the owner of the zoo told us to come back anytime. The zoo was ours. I had notes, we shot footage, but we didn’t know where we were going! Films like this happen really fast. Not an intellectual process. It is more organic.
When Bestiaire was over, I watched it with my editor. We were like, “Is that a film?” So you know how exciting it is. You don’t know what’s the object that’s in front of you.
But when I write the script, I really think it through. When I wrote Curling or Boris without Beatrice, I was the screenwriter. Which is also exciting because it is creative, but a bit more conventional. I like to direct actors and to write dialogues, but when I am making Bestiaire or Carcass, it is like, “What are we doing!” Few people, zero money. It was boring to shoot Bestiaire with elephants, giraffes, a bear… (Laughs) And then you look at all this stuff and you see the film.
When writing the scripts, do you have the visual aspects of the film in your mind as well?
I have a bit of schizophrenic personality. The films with zero budgets, like Bestiaire or Carcass, are totally free, but in the big films everything is storyboarded. I know exactly where the camera will be, what the shot will be, even when I am writing. I visualize my scenes in advance so we don’t waste time on the set. Because there are so many people involved, we have two million dollars at stake. I am not tyrant or a dictator, but I make sure that the twenty people behind me know that I am the boss. I over-prepare sometimes.
What do you think about people calling you an experimental filmmaker? Radical? Controversial?
I don’t like the word “radical.” Experimental, I am not sure. You know, the best thing I have heard about myself was when a film critic from Toronto said, “When you start watching a Denis Côté film, you never know what’s gonna happen.” I like that. I like to surprise people.
Where do you get your ideas for your films?
From places! I want to make a film in the woods. I may want to make a winter film.
I am a worker rather than a calculator. Take my new film, A Skin So Soft, on bodybuilders. I knew a guy who is a bodybuilder and I wanted to make a documentary about him. He said there were things in his private life he didn’t want to be shown. I said OK. Then I thought, “Let’s see who is on his Facebook.” I could see all his friends, five thousands guys, with big chests and muscles. I thought maybe I could make an experimental film with bodybuilders. Something original. I am not afraid to try things, I prefer trying to succeeding.
For example Carcass is a movie in two parts, one part documentary and one fiction. I said to myself, let’s see how the audience reacts to these two parts. It is more like a game, though I don’t like the word. I am not a guy who works six years on his masterpiece.
Canadian cinema seems to be booming.
There is English Canada and French Canada. Our culture and language are different and we don’t share much. The English-Canadian cinema has three guys: David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin. Why is English Canadian cinema so boring? Maybe because they are connected to the Unites States; they speak the same language, watch the same TV and listen to the same music. And when a filmmaker starts to work there, he tries to be connected to L.A. or New York and then he moves.
Now, French Canada! In the 1960s we were on top of the world with cinema vérité. We have legendary documentarists who were internationally known, people like Michel Brault. In the 70s we were still strong, but in the 80s and 90s, [our cinema] was dead. Starting with 2000 the Quebec film institutions put a lot of money into cinema, and we started making very bad historic films to tell people about the history of Quebec.
Around 2005, it was myself, Denis Villeneuve, and in 2009 Xavier Dolan, who is a planet onto himself. He was a legend at nineteen; he is what we can describe as a genius. What he did for Quebec cinema is very important. Denis Villeneuve and Jean Marc Vallée went to Hollywood. The other ones are Philippe Falardeau, Stéphane Lafleur (whose cinema is more like mine), Maxime Giroux and many more. We overproduce. There are more than 35 films a year, one new Quebec film in cinema each week. We don’t have enough people to watch them.
Can you tell me about filmmakers who influenced you?
Because I was a film critic, I had to see everything. I was a big fan of Claire Denis. When I made All That She Wants I was so Bela Tarrish! Or even Iranian cinema in the late 90s. The Chinese cinema and filmmakers like Jia Zhangke.
But your personal favorite filmmakers…
Fassbinder! Years ago, there was a thirty-day retrospective of Fassbinder. It changed my life. Fassbinder and Maurice Pialat.
Bresson, Cassavetes… Right now, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of my favorite. Also Sergei Loznitsa. For me, these two are probably the two greatest filmmakers today. They still believe in the hypnotic power of cinema. Another example is Bela Tarr. If you look at his cinema, it is nothing special but he is so hypnotic. Not many filmmakers know how to make a hypnotic film. I cannot do it, and I am really trying.