Sunday, November 14, 2021

269. Canadian film director Denis Côté’s tenth feature film “Hygiène sociale” (Social Hygiene) (2021) in French, based on his original script: An unusual film that serves to entertain verbally and visually as a dark comedy, without sex or violence

he title of the film Social Hygiene will remind viewers of the Covid pandemic’s cardinal rule to avoid infection—maintain social distancing to avoid infection. In fact, no two characters make physical contact in the entire film and maintain at least a 12 feet distance between each other. There is no mention of Covid or even wearing of masks in the film. Simply put, though the film was made during the pandemic, the film has nothing to do with it. Further, the film’s original script was written by the director Denis Côté in 2015, much before the onset of the pandemic. 
Antonin (right) spars verbally with his love
Cassiopée, while her new admirer silently watches 
in the background

The film is built around the pivotal character, Antonin, married, but staying away from his wife, Eglantine. Where? In a friend’s Volkswagen! Antonin, we realize is prone to making up unreal stories, is well read, deft with language wordplay, and is a thief, vandalizing cars in the process. The director/screenplay-writer Denis Côté’s central character encounters four ladies apart from his wife Eglantine. He meets with his sister, Solveig; his secret love, Cassiopée; a lady named Rose from the Ministry of Revenue tracking him down to coerce him to cough up his unpaid tax dues; and finally, Aurore, who has been also tracking him to get back a jacket and a computer he stole from her car, and some compensation for smashing its windows to steal those items.   

Antonin talks to his wife Eglantine

Antonin talks to Rose (note she wears pink),
the tax collector who can send him to prison

All the meetings with the five ladies are staged like a Samuel Beckett play with two or three characters (always including Antonin) in open grassy fields, often on the edges of forests. There is minimal movement from the characters often rooted to the same spot; only wordplay ensues with pregnant pauses between spoken lines. The only exceptionally active scene is Aurore dancing by herself in the forest to music, the source of which is never revealed. Why and what provokes Aurore, a theology student who works in a McDonald’s outlet, to suddenly dance or decide to take an interest in criminals is an amusing conundrum. To the casual viewer, the social criticism of Facebook, internet and taxes in the script may not be obvious. All the characters have lines to speak that refer to the ills of contemporary society and lifestyles.   

Antonin interacts with Solveig, his sister,
after she states that she found a lover at a restaurant
Note: She is still holding her wine glass 

Côté’s Antonin (mostly captured by the static camera in long shots, with a rare close-up towards the end of the film) is revealed as a filmmaker struggling to complete his script, and responds to Aurore’s revelation that she is a student of theology thus: “I believe in myself. I believe I can find the keys to my enigmas in my life by myself.”  

Antonin returns the jacket he stole from
Aurore's car to her. Note: Aurore's dress differs
 from those worn by other women

When asked about when and where he met his wife, Antonin wittily replies “I met my wife in a zoo, by the cage of the hyena. The rest is a long quiet river.” 

In Côté’s interesting script, the best lines are not invested with Antonin alone. Antonin’s love Cassiopée calls him a narcissist and says “You are 100 times dead. I love you as a zombie....Men are like mushrooms. The more handsome they are the more poison they contain.” The cocky Antonin pleads and buckles under Rose’s threat “I have the key to your prison cell at the edge of my pen,” to pay his taxes. To Aurore, Antonin agrees to return the jacket and computer. His sister, Solveig, finally finds a lover over tea and long tales, uttering the words “Carpe Diem.” His wife, too, leaves him for another lover. The once confident and witty Antonin is completely “socially distanced.” 

Antonin holds a flower he wishes to present to his love
Cassiopée (center, background) while his wife (left)
notes it all and decides to leave her philandering husband

Denis Côté, the filmmaker is essentially a charming, absurdist playwright, who stages his written work in natural open surroundings with clearly demarcated stage markings for his actors in grassy patches with distant bird, animal, and traffic sounds on the soundtrack. The rare body movements of most characters are in sharp contrast to Aurore flexible body movements during her dancing spell in the film. 

Aurore dances in the forest, the only character
in the film who moves a lot physically

While Côté presents verbal sparring that will interest most viewers, there are details that some could miss. The clothes worn by all actors are period costumes a century old, with the sole exception of Aurore’s clothes that are contemporary. Thus her clothes and her dance movements are in interesting contrast to all other characters. Is Côté suggesting that Antonin’s appropriate love interest should be Aurore, not the characters wearing century-old costumes? Antonin does confess he finds Aurore attractive. 

Antonin (Maxim Gaudette) levelled by all women:
The only close-up shot in the entire film

Then there is a deliberate smudge in the static vision to the left corner of the First Act in the countryside with Antonin sparring with his sister possibly to accentuate the picture postcard shot, because Solveig retains her hands-on-the-hips pose for a long while. When the static camera moves, there seems to be a purpose to intervene in the social distancing of the actors and the camera. Denis Côté’s film provides unusual entertainment for those who can appreciate good playwrights and a totally fresh approach to the medium that is visually and verbally witty. A very interesting filmmaker setting a new style! 

 P.S.  Social Hygiene won the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival’s “Encounters” section and the Best Director award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. This film is one of the best films of 2021 for the author.

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