THE TIGERS OF THE NORTH : Denis Côté on CURLING (for De Filmkrant magazine)

“These people are not freaks, these people are not ‘marginals.’ I like to make films about characters who have a foot outside the world, but the world is always there.”

It’s October 2010 and French-Canadian writer-director Denis Côté is in a room at Vienna’s Hilton hotel, talking about the father and daughter who are the focus of his latest film Curling. And talking about them – in his gentle, accented English – with the care and concern one might extend to one’s own relatives.

“These people are not freaks – I don’t like that word. They’re not ‘Herzogian’, you know! They’re just … there. They pay taxes. I don’t even want to say that what you see in the film is typically Canadian – and I don’t know in what sense this film is autobiographical.

“I come from a family where we don’t share secrets, and we’re never intimate with each other, so there’s probably something unconscious going on in that script. It scares me to think I’m a little like that… Maybe, but I’d probably need a psychologist here,” he laughs.

In the words of prominent Toronto-based critic – and former IFFR-juror – Adam Nayman, the 37-year-old Montrealer “has long since staked out his territory as Canada’s most adventurous auteur. With Curling, he seeks to refine the terrain.

“A film about damaged individuals in a bleak landscape, it nevertheless has a sense of humour: a scene where an overprotective father and his sheltered daughter (Emmanuel and Philomène Bilodeau) listen to Tiffany chirp her way through ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ both establishes and makes fun of Côté’s preoccupation with isolation.”

His film may be deliberately low-key (“there’s not much happening,” he concedes) but Côté himself is pretty hard to miss. Well over six feet tall, he’s a burly, black-clad bloke with wispy blond hair, black-framed spectacles, impressive armfuls of tattoos and an array of silvery rings.

A genially amiable ‘gentle giant’, Côté has been a radio-presenter and film-critic in his time, making a gradual transition to film-making via 15 shorts (Seconde Valse and Kosovolove were presented at IFFR 2002). His features kicked off with Les états nordiques (2005), followed by Nos vies privées (2007), Elle veut le chaos (2008), Carcasses (2009), the latter an experimental docu-fiction hybrid shot guerilla-style in a forest with a couple of handicapped non-professionals.

“A very weird experience – we ended up in Cannes!,” Côté recalls with amazement. “It was made for $5,000 – an arts-centre gave me a camera, and we tried something. I like to say that I prefer ‘trying’ than ‘succeeding’ in a very boring way… “And people in Quebec were like, ‘Why is this film in Cannes?’ And they still talk about it! They’re not sure what this… object is. So for me, it’s like the more ‘hardcore’ you are, the more ‘Cannes’ you get!”

Les états nordiques
won a Golden Leopard award (for best video-shot feature, shared with The Masseur) at Switzerland’s long-running Locarno Film Festival, and five years later, in August last year, Côté returned to pick up Best Director there (Bilodeau won Best Actor.) Soon after, in Austria, the capital’s own prestigious cine-jamboree – the Viennale – announced that would be “the first festival to dedicate a special program to Denis Côté’s work.” Hence his presence chatting to De Filmkrant in the Hilton…

Back home, however, Côté is seen very much as, to use his own self-deprecating words, “the festival guy… I’m a product of festivals. I hate to say it, but it’s true – we just don’t sell the films to other territories.

“When it comes out in Montreal, it gets good reviews… but in cinemas it’s a only two week thing, maybe three weeks. When I do interviews at home, they ask ‘So, you go to every festival, you win everywhere?’ “No – but I will go to maybe 35 festivals with each film, and my whole career for five years is meeting the audience at festivals. I know a lot of film-makers who really don’t want to do Q&As.

“But I like to give people answers – it’s a human experience to… present your film. A lot of people staying for Q&As are people who didn’t like the film. As a cinephile, if I go see a film and it’s very good, I don’t need to hear the director. So, people staying can be confrontational and I know that, and I need to be there.

“I have these ‘enigmatic’ things in all my films,” Côté admits, “and it can become very difficult during Q&As because people really want answers. I have answers – it’s stupid to just put weird stuff in, and not have answers. But people ask so many questions now – I don’t know if it was like that ten or twenty years ago…”

I assure him that Curling (the title a reference to the convivial sport with which the main character semi-reluctantly becomes involved) may provoke lively interest in Rotterdam because it features the festival’s totemic symbol – a tiger – slap-bang in the middle of its poster.

The beast pops up briefly in a crucial, dreamily ‘enigmatic’ scene involving the 12-year-old female protagonist – an unschooled, barely-socialised innocent: “it’s just a ten, twenty second thing – she sees a tiger, and for me it’s the only time in the film when her imagination is working on something.”

Côté’s cat has, however, proved controversial elsewhere: “You know I heard ‘Oh, the tiger – he ‘took’ it from Apichatpong’s Tropical Malady…’ And there’s some bowling, so of course it’s The Big Lebowski! The critic in Variety wrote, ‘he’s trying to do Fargo and Big Lebowski… but Côté’s no Coen.’ Some people say, ‘oh, it’s very Fargo‘ … I’m sorry, it’s just because there’s snow. Come on!”

Neil Young
written for January 2011 edition of De Filmkrant magazine
originally published
in Dutch