ON LATENT FEMININITY: TWO FILMS OF DENIS COTÉ

This entry was posted on March 9th, 2014

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Elle veut le chaos (2008)

By Petra Popovic

The former film critic, Denis Côté, is a much-acclaimed filmmaker in contemporary Canadian cinema. Vic+Flo Saw a Bear (2013), his latest and most accessible film, winning him the Alfred Bauer Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, garnered a measure of more acclaim than his enigmatic Bestiaire (2012), that for the majority, was his most incomprehensible but splendidly realized documentary. While less mysterious than their predecessors, the last two productions were shocking nevertheless. Unlike the others, they no longer bear witness to a common thread in Côté’s body of work, a core concept arching through all his previous films. This leitmotif ended with Curling (2010), a film, which won two awards at Locarno. A series of cinematic codes, constantly overlapping each other, with which the French-Canadian director juggles inconspicuously, are to be deciphered in his work. The mystery of his films is rooted in the obscurity of an untold, yet, existing history, which Côté lets quietly roll behind the scenes – a milieu almost untouchable in Bestiaire (2012) and too palpable in Vic+Flo Saw a Bear (2013). Almost in the manner of Pirandello, he allows well-measured fragments of this invisible story to move to the authentically tangible, but often apparently incoherent foreground. This creates an irritating feeling of irrelevance – a manifest sensation – in the viewer.

On one of her daily escapes into the woods, Coralie, the heroine of Elle veut le chaos (2008), finally comes to realize that she has too much longing for freedom and independence to spend the rest of her life in a Western-like hole called Contrecœur (reluctance), being dependent on a horde of violent, crooked neighbors. Having disappeared at the beginning of the film, in Côtés narrative style, her mother appears as a cinematic diversion: Unprotected from existential need and the indigent husband Jacobe Coulombe, perhaps she had to prostitute herself to feed her family. However, she speaks for a prohibition: None of the senior might-be-crooks, who could be Coralie’s father, should ever touch the girl.

A bicycle, symbol of Coralie’s escape into the new; a gate, at which Coralie shuttles back and forth, as a parable for obstacles to overcome; a fallen bird’s nest in the forest, which may be related to broken families; the moth as a mirror image of Jacob’s dark psyche as well as the leitmotif ping-pong game between two rival gangsters, Spazz and Pic (both interested in Coralie) – all of this holds more relevance for the syntactic characterization of the heroine than the mysterious absence of the mother. Coralie loses a kidney and, thus, her freedom: The ominous Mrs. Murdock (the name refers to the ocean), robbing the young woman’s most fundamental organ of vital force. The water – as arch-symbol of the maternal-feminine, mental strength as well as emotions – thus serves as another trope for the indirect characterization of Coralie.

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Carcasses (2009)

The recurring ‘forest’ in Côtés films gives an idea why the New Brunswick-born director prefers getting lost, unadorned, in remote natural landscapes, rather than recognizably camouflaging himself at urban street corners. Within Côté’s work, the place of mental concentration and introspection as well as a symbol for the unconscious, is the forest, through which the border between the known and the unknown runs. In Carcasses (2009), whenever Jean-Paul Colmore receives a visit – mechanics and casual hobbyists excluded – he must not only, in the short term, abandon his routine, an almost biblical seven-day cycle, but also face his emotional disability. At a cemetery full of car wrecks, in the midst of St. Amable’s birch-studded forest, the sudden fiction supersedes the cyclical documentation. An interaction between light birdsong, metal hammer blows and Mahler’s music, Carcasses seems like a genuinely morbid game between the fictitious idyll of the female (forest, birch, Down’s Syndrome visitors) and documentary wilderness of male (scrap yard, car wrecks, Jean-Paul). Allegorically, the once rolling tires stand around idly in the end. In this anarchic ‘cadaver landscape’, they surround the aged collector, as if they were still announcing change.

However, the Bulgarian couple of Nos vies privées (2007) appears to exceed the limits of the unconscious. Here, another connotation is given to the forest: to the young man the feminine appears menacing. This time, not at all genuine, but all the more demonic, Milena and Philip stage John Milton’s Paradise Lost: In the paradise of a secluded cottage, Milena’s seductive female psyche meets Philip’s instinctively male essence. But before their fresh passion becomes a deep bond, Côté makes use of some references from animal symbols, with which he lets the audience imagine the approaching ‘Expulsion from Paradise’. The bird that Milena draws on Philip’s behind after their sexual act embodies contents of the unconscious, similar to the forest. As an air sign, the bird is, however, associated with Milena’s thoughts that move her everyday life. It stands for her soul. The short sequence with the caterpillar, immediately after their sexual intercourse, indicates the transformation process between two lovers. Yet, unexpectedly, the caterpillar does not transform into a butterfly, but rapidly into a snake, which, besides sexuality, represents disturbing instincts as well as feelings from the subconscious. Equally metaphorical, a cobweb including a spider, mirrors Philip’s fear of a dark, feminine power in which he has been entangled – he falls asleep, while waiting for a never-to-be-seen ‘monster’ or a wild animal in the forest. The terrified and practically minded Philip cannot understand what is going on in his suddenly threatening girlfriend, neither does Milena, disappointed by love, seem able in maintaining trust in her lover. A boar, which Philip could not fight on the day of the fiesta, is to blame for this alienation. The boar appears to be the associated detail for the ostensibly triumphant Mephisto. But Milton could, like Milena’s card quiz suggests, find his paradise again. The black and white final sequence shows a flashback to a strong man, similar to the unwanted houseguests, who is going to bully Milena. In the ring, he picks up the boar without any trouble. An act of wish or a triumph for Milena?

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Curling (2010)

Côté is no less biblical in his debut docu-fiction Les états Nordiques (2005). Christian cannot talk about his fate. Instead of crying out loud, he silently apes – dressed in a stifling monkey costume – the devil and the sinners. Weak against the temptations of the world, Christian wants to firmly commit his attention to his own life, after a visit to the pet store. Against the Christian teachings of medicine, he gives his terminally ill mother euthanasia. He has a difficult fresh start in a very small town. Much like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, he is plagued by guilt. Both the omnipresent conflict of conscience as well as Christian’s mourning are explored through the use of blue as the leitmotif for clothing or light. He works on a garbage dump, where he cleans up perpetually, as if wanting to create order in his own spiritual chaos. A cross testifies of life’s difficulties, to which the young man matures into a refined personality, at best. Heaven and earth come together in the water, where Christian swims every day, in order to ‘wash away’ the sins of the past; and also where he meets the girl who may take his mental burden.

More enigmatic than ever, the Quebec film artist’s fascination for the feminine manifests in Curling. As their last name readily suggests, Jean-François Sauvageau and his daughter lead a truly wild, albeit unobtrusive life. Right from the beginning, his crooked nose points at a stubborn nature. It gradually becomes recognizable that behind this obstinate, suspicious facade lies the primal fear of loss and deprivation of liberty. Julyvonne, whose sociophobic father never lets her go to school and, categorically, does not let any friends approach her, decides break out of the overbearing house arrest, out of curiosity and self-determination, similar to her mother. While her unconventional mother is powerless, serving a dubious prison sentence, Julyvonne takes daily walks to the nearby woods, despite her ban – again, a place of mystery, of the adventurous, the feminine, but also a place of testing and initiation.

What she finds there can be rewritten with a harsh description: the ‘Missing Family’. Here, double meaning is attached to a wild tiger in a cage. On the one hand, it symbolizes Jean-François’ aggressive wildness that he could never show at home (and could, therefore, never act out); on the other hand, the tiger reflects the energetic nature of the detained and now ‘safe’ mother. This metonymic mirage leads the curious young girl a bit deeper into the forest. A dream-like pile of corpses, which she discovers here, successively transforms into Julyvonne’s best friends. The bodies represent the emotionally cold, rigid father figure. Moreover, they stand for any error, fault and failure in the past. Jean-François will only be able to bury his bodies at the end of the film, after realizing, with relief, that his pathological concern for his beloved daughter is what is draining his life force. Although the physical absence of the mother is an ostentatious, recurring theme, Côté measures the female figure in the mythical, omnipresent absolute of a white goddess.

Manifestation of this generous, enduring female power is not apparent, neither in Bestiaire (2012) nor in Vic+Flo Saw a Bear (2013). This being the reason why the latest two productions have not been subjected to cohesive analysis.