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November 09, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Social Hygiene


Hygiene Sociale
Denis Cote - 2021
GreenGround Productions

Is it possible for a film to be too cerebral? Social Hygiene may test the patience of the more casual film festival viewer. The audience that most likely will feel most comfortable with the rhythms of Cote's film might be the Francophiles familiar with another Denis, Diderot, and his plays, whether directly or as incorporated by several Nouvelle Vague filmmakers. What we have is mostly a series of static shots of characters standing in the Quebec countryside. The actors are all seen in long shot. The only break is of the boyish Aurore feeding a horse and later dancing by herself. Most of the film consists of wordplay and debate.

While the women Antonin is in conflict with, his wife, his lover, and a tax collector, are immobile, Antonin fidgets in place. While he he is dressed in contemporary clothing, the others are in period dress of different eras. We hear, but never see, the birds heard in the background. The dialogue is in an archaic, theatrical style, while the characters refer to lives with the contemporary brands of Facebook, McDonald's and Volkswagen. Antonin gets by as a petty thief who wants to thinks of himself as a philosopher and would-be filmmaker challenging social order.

Some of the writing on Social Hygiene has described the film as post-modern. Yes, there is sound and color, but the use of the tableau format, the theatricality of the staging, makes me think of older cinema. More specifically this visual format is similar to many of the kinds of films from the earliest silent era when a static camera recorded performers mimicking the point of view of the audience at a stage performance as might have been done in 1905.

What may be of greater interest is that the initial screenplay was written in 2015, with the staging of the actors several feet apart already part of the design. According to Cote, Social Hygiene would have been the same film as intended even if there was not a pandemic - social distancing before the mandated social hygiene! Cote's films are deliberately not commercial, and he insists that he does not consider his work successful unless some members of the audience walk out. Cote's own assessment of his film may be the best form of preparation prior to viewing, "The humour comes from the dandy persona of Antonin and the formal approach of the project. For some people the long static shots will play like irony or humour, while others will just take pleasure in the compositions."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 9, 2021 06:51 AM