Canadian Film Institute salutes the films of Denis Côté
by Allan Wigney
At 37, Denis Côté admits to feeling slightly uncomfortable at career retrospectives. The Montreal-based film critic turned filmmaker stresses he is “only starting… looking for some sort of signature.” But, he concedes, “Apparently, it’s already there.”
That signature has been expressed through five feature films in five years, each embracing the isolation of remote Québecois locales (barely) populated by characters on the fringe of society. Côté’s films are dark, foreboding, mysterious. Minimal budget, a cast of amateurs, empty spaces, non-narrative mood pieces assembled without a script. Signed, Denis Côté.
“I look at these filmmakers and every time they make a film they are going to make a masterpiece,” Côté observes. “They spend three years preparing for it. Me, I like to try things. You see the final result, you know maybe it’s not a masterpiece, it’s not perfect, but it’s something.”
He’s referring in particular to his 2005 debut, Les états nordiques. But it’s a reality that applies to each of Côté’s films, through to last year’s bittersweet Curling. A dysfunctional-family feature that encapsulates all of the filmmaker’s obsessions into his most “accessible” work to date, Curling has been a favourite at international film festivals, and has threatened to serve as Côté’s commercial breakthrough.
“I think we have to accept that there is the festival world and the commercial world,” the director muses. “But I would like at some point to sell my films to a wider audience. You know, Mondays I like to be that rough and tough independent filmmaker, but on Tuesday I want to meet that woman in the grocery store that asks for my autograph.”
Not that Côté is prepared to sell out just yet. He reports he has a suitable follow-up to Curling in his mind. But as he heads to Ottawa to attend the first night of his Canadian Film Institute retrospective, he leaves a shoot that to date comprises nothing more than filming animals at the zoo.
“My next film is always in reaction to the one before,” he explains. “Curling was a two-year thing with 25 people in the crew and professional actors. Now, I’m just filming animals. It’s very primitive; you just film a giraffe for two minutes, or a rhino, and it tells you something. It’s like a reaction to the Curling heaviness. We don’t really know where it’s going, but believe me, it’s going somewhere.”
As is Côté, a promising and prolific new voice in Canadian cinema. So tangents are welcome, and have so far reaped artistic rewards if not commercial ones. For now, Côté is content to remain in the wilderness.
“I’m a very urban guy,” he concludes. “I don’t have a driver’s licence. I live downtown. I never leave the city. So if you send me somewhere in the country I get super-inspired. I see a small town and I see a killer there. I see a lake and of course there’s a monster in there, and wild animals all around. I’m mythifying the countryside. If I were to shoot in downtown Montreal I wouldn’t know where to put my camera.”
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