As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
Québécois filmmaker Denis Côté on filmic revenge, horror, and making a film in seven days.
New York Live Arts presents
Québécois filmmaker Denis Côté has become known for a type of rigorous experimentation film-by-film. His latest, Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, may feel like further-out terrain for Côté than it is even for the viewer; the picture is a mysterious romantic drama about two lesbian ex-cons who take to a small cottage in the woods, hoping to eke out a quiet new life together. Côté’s script deprives the audience of backstory or foreshadowing, but rather uses Vic and Flo’s discovery of events as the audience’s own opportunity to discover them. As tensions rise between the newly free couple, complicated sides of Vic and Flo’s independent—sometimes complementary, sometimes not—versions of misanthropy and optimism emerge. The impact of what is revealed, Côté stresses, has more to do with the viewer’s preconceptions than a point he wants to make.
At times the movie feels like a more formal remake of his earlier Our Private Lives, about an internet couple who run into problems once they commit to getting together in person. In conversation, Côté doesn’t mince words: in our one-hour bull session, putatively on the heels of the U.S. release of Vic + Flo, Côté broke down his serpentine career history while casually dropping film theories, a handful at a time. His cardinal preoccupation as an artist may well be, unto itself, the act of reconsideration—and yet he addresses his own work with none of the opaque self-mythologizing that’s hidebound to festival darlings. Côté talks every bit as crisply and lucidly as the HD frames in which he paints his pictures, but with a playfulness and patience that can only be described as generous. There’s no mistaking Côté’s filmmaking for anything more or less than an extension of his former day job reviewing movies for Canada’s now-defunct ici magazine—auteurism as the ultimate act of criticism. Spoilers below.
Steve Macfarlane Bestiaire (2012) was pretty much your “I’ve arrived!” moment, at least here in New York. I wanted to know the relationship between that film and Vic + Flo, and if you’ve specifically game-planned one as a reaction to the other.
Denis Côté Yeah, it’s true, Bestiaire was the film where people “discovered” me in the U.S. It took like six features to get there. What you need to know is, I did eight features in eight years, which is very fast, very prolific. But, I would say four or five of them were mainly improvised, with no script. I like to make, let’s say, big films with good budgets. And in between those, I do what I like to call my “revenge” films. Meaning, I really need to take out my revenge on the industry.
So when I make a Vic + Flo or a Curling, there are a lot of rules and a lot of work and assistants and a lot of this and that. When those projects are over, all I feel like doing is going with three friends to the woods or a zoo or whatever, with a video camera. When I did Bestiaire I didn’t even know it was a film. I didn’t know if it was going to go in festivals or even on a movie screen—maybe it’s an installation, maybe it’s totally experimental and nobody wants to see it. But the excitement I get from those projects, it’s priceless. I feel very alive, very free when I make those films. But then I need to find some strength to make the bigger films—it’s how I earn a living. If you’re a filmmaker, then you’re a filmmaker. You need to write dialogues, you need to direct actors, you need to play by the rules, you need to please some people and you need to confront the industry. SoVic + Flo is, for me, a typical narrative adventure with all the rules and stuff.
I don’t know if you can feel the pain in my voice when I say that, but … (laughter) No, I like Vic + Flo but I’m really in love with films like Carcasses or Bestiaire, and I just finished a new one and it’s in the Berlin Film Festival, a $10,000 film.
With Vic + Flo, I wanted to write for female characters, because I hadn’t done it very much in the past. I wanted to find some of the themes I always have in my films: people living just a little—maybe a foot—outside of society, I would say. Not freaks, not totally marginal people, just people who have a hard time connecting or reconnecting with the idea of society. I find these characters very touching. They remind me of my father or even myself—just regular people who are afraid to go to the hospital when it hurts, or who’re afraid to pay their taxes. These people are touching in the way that they don’t want to have anything to do with society, they want to create their own little governments. It doesn’t mean they are freaks. So, this film started like that. I wanted to have strong female characters, and I knew I could have spectacular casting; Pierette Robitaille (who plays Vic), is well known in Quebec for silly comedies.
SM Everything I’ve read indicates she’s done more mainstream films than Vic + Flo.
DC Pretty mainstream; everybody here was like, “Uh, what the hell is she doing with Côté?” Then Romane Bohringer—who plays Flo—disappeared for about fifteen years from the film industry, but she’s perfectly okay with my universe. But it is weird to have a French actress in a Québécois film. I knew I would be juggling a weird cast and a weird story, so the question of inspiration is quite terrifying for me because I’m not even sure where it comes from—it’s a blank page thing. You write, and you write, and you write, and you don’t know where it’s going, and then bang! It’s in your face.
SM In the States, there seems to be this thing multiple times any given year where a movie is slammed as a work of art because the characters aren’t “likeable” enough. I wanted to know your thoughts on that, because this film plays it pretty close to the vest in terms of how the audience is meant to regard the two characters. You’re sympathetic, but you’re also wondering …
DC It was there in the writing. I see the film as having a lot of negative energy going on, and my goal is to find something beautiful amidst that pile of shit, you know? At some point, poetry, or something nice, has to come up. I need to find ways to find that poetry. I know everybody is kind of unpleasant, kind of funny—but not really—and I know it’s hard for the audience to connect with these women. But, that’s the game of the film. That’s the challenge of the film. Some people told me, “Look, I was really with your women and you lost me at the end with your violence.” Some people told me, “I was really bored with these women. Thank you for that ending.” I don’t really mind those comments. I knew I wanted to make a very intimate story, and then had to change it completely and make it a revenge film. The change comes out of nowhere, and the goal was to try to make the ending feel not quite so random.
SM It was there, in some form, the entire time.
DC That’s my main question: will the audience follow me with that stuff? Am I allowed to kill my main characters at the end of such a story? I didn’t have those answers, but I knew that I was willing to try. To go further—maybe you’ll think it’s totally twisted, but for me it’s a happy ending. I was looking for a way for these two women to end up together forever, away from all the rules of society, and finally be happy together forever. I thought: “Okay, they’re gonna go through some very violent processes, but in the end they’ll be delivered from the rules of society and everything.” So, for me it’s a happy ending.
SM That makes sense; throughout the whole movie, they’re trying to get some kind of peace, and even when they get close they can’t maintain it between each other.
DC It’s a good thing that the audience can feel that, because when all that violence comes at the end, I hope that people don’t feel I have a fetish for filming violence. It’s the first time I’ve done that and for me it’s very boring, but I had to film it, against myself. I didn’t have fun filming it. I hope people can feel all the romantic arguments behind it.
SM Well, why had you avoided putting violence in your films up to this point?
DC I don’t want to sound too moral about it, but I really discovered that it’s boring to shoot violence. I feel really sorry for people shooting horror films now. But what’s important is the result; if people are scared, if there’s an impact, good. But actually filming it is too boring. I have no problem watching it and I have no clear opinion about it. When I feel it’s something perverse, or it’s just done out of provocation or to create a name for oneself—if it becomes a genre in itself, like torture porn—I’m not a good client for that. I will never make those films. But at the same time, what you need to know is that before I studied film, when I was young, I was an encyclopedia of horror cinema.
DC I think I saw every cannibal film, every zombie film out there, between the ages of 11 and 17. Then I discovered people called Godard, Pasolini, Cassavetes, and was like, Okay, there’s something else. But I still think it’s stuck in my DNA. All the years of horror films—now I don’t watch much—I think it‘s stuck inside me. There is always a sense of menace in my stuff. Even in Bestiaire. I asked my sound designer, “Can you put some sort of menace over these animals? Like something’s gonna happen?” I don’t know. It comes by itself. It’s just that in Vic + Flo, I materialize that menace by filming it explicitly at the end. But I don’t think I will go and make more violent films, but I like the sense of menace as an abstract thing. You don’t always see the violence, but it’s there.
SM Or it’s used very sparingly.
DC I need to admit that I really love to play, maybe that’s not an elegant or good word, but I really do love to play with the audience’s expectations. Of course, I was a film critic for ten years, so basically when you’re a critic you’re looking for original stuff, you become totally allergic to conventions. So, as a filmmaker, I’m the same kind of guy. I want to make sure the audience is never safe watching one of my films. I like to try to do much more than just succeed. My films—I’ve made eight—are sometimes made in like, seven days. I know those are not masterpieces, but at least you can feel that I’m trying to do new things. I’m totally obsessed with language, and genres; I don’t think I’m a very good storyteller, so I like to experiment with things that maybe we’ve seen before. The question is, am I allowed to make an intimate story and then completely switch gears to a vengeance film? I’m telling you, I think it’s a genuine question. And I was haunted by that much more than thinking, Is it a good, solid, entertaining story? Remember, we make our films with public money. Sounds boring, saying that to an American, but we don’t have the same sense of danger when we make our films.
SM It’s actually something of an issue here. If you’re independently wealthy or you’re inside the studio system, you can get your movie financed. The rest are applying for grants, running fundraising campaigns …
DC I went to Sundance once. But anywhere I go, whenever I meet an American filmmaker, he’s always, always, always nervous. You know Ramin Bahrani?
DC These guys, when they go to festivals, all they have time to do is look for buyers, TV people, people who know people who can buy their films. Ask a few questions and you’ll discover a rich uncle financed the movie, and they need to reimburse the poor guy. It’s a jungle. It’s a real battle. For us, in Quebec? I get one million dollars. I need to be responsible, I know that it’s public money, but it’s a question of culture: making sure Canada and Quebec are well-represented abroad. But I won’t lose my wife. I won’t lose my car. I won’t lose my house. That’s what’s beautiful and scary about the United States. Can you even name the guys who made The Blair Witch Project fifteen years ago? That’s why I can talk about the “artistic” aspects of Vic + Flo. I would never make this film if I were in the States.
SM I must ask. Have you ever wanted to make an American film?
DC We’ve been talking about it, the press agent—a guy from L.A.—was teasing me, saying, “Okay, maybe Vic + Flo is too weird, nobody would produce a film like that in L.A. But at least they can see now that you know how to direct a film.” For us in Quebec, it’s very different from the guys in Toronto or Vancouver. These guys connect naturally with people in the States. We speak French—different cultures and all that—we like to create contacts with France, and we think we can do art cinema with Europe. It’s not the same as the impulse to “go Hollywood,” but at the same time look at guys like Jean-Marc Valee, Denis Villanueve, or Philippe Falardeau. Those guys are all my friends and they’re from Quebec, and now they’re totally in Hollywood. So I don’t know. I would be willing to try, but I don’t think I could deal with all the demands.
SM Vic + Flo has a really interesting balance between exposition in words and exposition in shots—usually really long, still takes, with uneasy spatial relationships. Do you map this stuff out ahead of time, or figure it out on-set?
DC Well for those films, yes, everything is prepared way, way ahead of time. I’m totally afraid of coming in one morning and there being thirty people waiting on me to make a decision. But, I’m obsessed with the narrative. I like to hide things from the audience and to reveal stuff little-by-little so there’s not much backstory. However, I do think we know what we need to know. When a woman comes out of jail, and she has a parole officer for life, can we all guess that she killed someone? I think so. I like to work from the present and look towards the future, and to let the audience imagine the past. If you’re an active viewer then you’ll be okay with my cinema; but if you’re passive, waiting for solutions, they might never come. The danger is to make a confusing film, but I think with Vic + Flo, everything is there. It may be very minimal, but it’s not that weird. For me,Bestiaire was the ultimate audience experience. Some people said it was a horror film. Some people said it was beautiful. Some people said they laughed a lot. One person said, “Sorry, but that’s not a film—it’s a diorama.” There are as many people as there are ways to get to a film. I always say the same thing: the day I make a film where 400 people are clapping and crying afterwards, it’s suspicious; it means there are 400 different personalities and every one is getting it the same way.
SM The close-ups are so intense, that’s where most of the acting is, even if it’s not spoken dialogue.
DC Well, the film was supposed to be much more frank. I mean, we all love the Dardenne Brothers stuff. We like filming characters, putting the camera on their neck and making sure they really don’t mean anything they’re saying. This time I wanted to be much more frank, so I filmed my people right in the face, they say exactly what they have to say. Maybe it’s not totally clear but at least it’s in your face. They’re strong, mean, and they say what they have to say. It’s the first time I’ve made a film like this, so maybe that’s why you feel the authority in the framing.
SM So, it sounds like constructing a narrative is a pain, but you’ve got to do it.
DC I know it sounds like that, it’s just that we’ve heard the cinema-is-dead, every-story-has-already-been-told statements so many times. Eventually you start to believe it. I’m more into deconstructing things, creating clashes between fiction and documentary. I’m not a very good storyteller, I don’t think I can make people laugh or cry as much as I want to. When I made Carcasses, it started as a total documentary, but it became a total fiction. Every time I meet students in schools, I say, Look, I think everything’s been made already: violence, sex, what’s left? Narrative propositions. Make sure it’s exploding in some way, not telling a good story, but just exploding the narrative. Or films in two parts; my old films were Part A and Part B. I like to build something and destroy it. The danger is to become random, experimental, making things just to provoke. That’s always a danger for me. The worst thing I read about Vic + Flo was a critic who wrote, “This film is trying everything in the book to look original, and it hurts.” I don’t like to read that. It makes it seem like I’m saying, “Oh, I’m gonna make it as fucked-up I can. Hopefully people will like it.” That’s not how it works.
SM So you read your critics?
DC I think filmmakers who say they never read anything are probably liars. The goal is not to be affected by it. You can read the first few sentences and tell if people have knowledge, if they’re cinephiles or not. Because I was a critic, it’s a job I respect, a job I understand, and I know if I’m going to read something quite pointless that will have no impact, and I’m not too affected. The films I make, I hope somebody will hate. I hope some people will say my film is a masterpiece and some people will say it’s crap. Hopefully it’s just not unanimous. So yeah, I read the stuff, maybe not every blog but I think it’s important.
SM Was there ever a time in your career, or your life, where you fell out of love with this stuff you’re discussing? A moment of doubt?
DC You need to understand: when I left film criticism, my first two films were talked about as: “Oh, that’s an ex-critic making films.” “Oh, he’s filming his influences.” “Oh, I remember he said nice things about Denis, now he’s copying her here.” People were always hunting, always looking to see where my references were. My past was following me. I made my third film with one million dollars; I thought I was making a big film, with stars in it, and it was black and white, very slow, and I was still the ex-critic making a wannabe Québécois Bela Tarr film. I was like, “Can I be considered a real filmmaker, with a signature?”
What helped me was that my next film, Carcasses, which was very experimental, was in Cannes. That got me a little respect from people. And then when I made the fifth, Curling, I felt like I was becoming someone, but people were still asking me about my job as a critic. With Bestiaire, which traveled everywhere, I was finally a director. People from abroad especially love to ask me about my years as a film critic, but that was eight years ago! I can’t say it was a crisis, but it’s just that I look at people around me, and we don’t know where they come from, and after one film they are “real” filmmakers. Me, I’m this “ex-critic.” Or “Mr. Air Miles”—some kind of festival-only guy.
Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming Liang, whomever; they come from the festival world. They’re not famous because they make box office hits! They’re in the history books and are seen as masters and well, I wanna be with these guys! Why not? (Laughter)
I’m never nervous because I owe money, or because I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I make my arty stuff, people call me a festival guy, and I make my peace with it.
SM Your approach is kind of the opposite of the old overnight-sensation model that was applied to your Kevin Smiths or your Tarantinos. It’s process-oriented.
DC I see my work as a wall, and every film is a brick. Some are smaller than others but at the end of the day you have an oeuvre, while some guys are waiting four, five, six years to get enough money to try making their super-masterpiece. And, they usually fail.
You’re going to see; my new film is the smallest, most experimental yet. Everybody expected the opposite. No! I just made a seventy-minute experimental film with people working in shops around Montreal. I don’t calculate anything. Maybe I should find an agent and just shut up for three years and write the real masterpiece. But just listen to me: I talk a lot, I’m very prolific, I do everything fast. I need to be able to listen to myself.
I’m not ashamed of a single film I made. I never did a yogurt commercial. I guess my integrity is there.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear plays at Anthology Film Archives Februrary 1-13.
Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail. His film SHIRT TERMINATORS debuted at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.