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Le Panoptique

Realm of the Assassin

By Mathieu Li-Goyette

One day, while he was still a film critic and a short film author, Denis Côté stopped writing about cinema to better focus on his directing career. Until then, he had alternated between snappy short texts and disruptive short films, adopting an honest, therefore subversive posture. There would be no compliance to the sirens of the industry, no yielding to maniacal producers and no lulling to the lullabies of press releases… All of that in order to gain the necessary space, a little tape and a little time, to elaborate his fearsome way to frame marginality.

The Panoptique’s inaugural program explores this crucial and lesser-known period in Denis Côté’s career, that of his first short films, through the exhibition of eight restored specimens, directed between 1999 and 2005. Steeped in Betacam and MiniDV aesthetics (which the restoration never aimed to denature), these eight films stand out through their consistent refusal of conventions and their distrust for fiction in its most rigidly scripted way. Old Fashion Waltz (1999) reminds us of the rental tape from Ringu (1998), but it also reveals a distant and ghostly land, hanging on to fragments of light as to shards of hope. We can already glimpse at the expressionist obsessions of All That She Wants (2008) and Ghost Town Anthology (2019), while being thoroughly absorbed by the cohesion of their origins within the art of tampered documentary, walking the very fine line meant to delineate fiction from reality.

Seconde valse (2000) extends the reach of his documentary lens to more luminous parts of the country. Through the grace of two laughing children, rurality manages to invoke a time of innocence and the memory of happy days. In turn, this allows us to fathom a fact still unchallenged in Côté’s work: every idyll is an ironic illusion. Like when he ‘nostalgizes’ the presence of his two young subjects by freezing time in the ephemerality of bliss. Like when he films the indifference of caged animals near the end of this short and in Bestiaire (2012) or when he captures the excitement surrounding the preparation of an ‘athletic’ competition in firemen clothes, remote ancestor of the giant pumpkin race at the start of Wilcox (2019).


With Kosovolove (2000), he tackles the chamber drama. Even his critical output of the era, with its references to Eustache, Tarr, Tsiang and Dumont, foreshadows a political hygiene of bodies: neither submissive nor fulfilled, the lovers embody, sometimes unintentionally, a whole humanitarian crisis through their existential coupling  (including the precise Johanne Haberlin, soon to become a regular in his work). We can recapture the inward pull of this huis clos in every love story within his work, animated by a shared desire for the edge of the world running through unclosed wounds, suffocating Côté’s characters while still granting them hope to breath – this doesn’t weaken their pride, however, and their ability to hide their torments at the risk of appearing a little cruel. Impossible not to see in this dual tension the dynamics to come in Our Private Lives (2007), Curling (2010), Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013), Boris Without Béatrice (2016), right up to the humorous and honest simplicity of Social Hygiene (2021).

There is no idealism in the emotional trajectory of withdrawal, but what Denis Côté draws from cinema in order to envision the human condition in a different light, particularly that of the ostracized margin that was so unappealing to the type of Quebec cinema celebrated at the time where he directed his short films. Once again, the articles he wrote at the time accurately describe his exasperation toward commercial cinema, small-time cinema, while, during those years, the local industry was more and more content to consider itself an industry. It’s probably by refusing to indulge in the banality of comfort that his cinema has managed to frame the marginal and the wretched so effortlessly, making them seem more original than all those figures hailing from a kind of realism created to fit within any structure, whether narrative or subsidized.

Rejoue-moi ce vieux mélodrame (2001) and La sphatte (2003) go even further in this direction, that of oblique narration, with wandering bodies, illicit or choreographed, adrift in the concrete jungle of Montreal. A threat looms; what is it? Where does it come from? From everywhere and nowhere at the same time, because such cinema is no more paranoid than it is naive: the evils of the day are continuously resounding; they need not be explained nor dissected. From the banality of the urban malaise, Côté mostly vies to derive poetry whereas everybody else looks away, bystanders and institutional empathy alike. His lonely characters progress tirelessly within these two fictions, which seem like anti-fiction, as within a materialized conscience, aware of all the exhausted potentialities of narrative cinema.


Between the two lies his Mécanique de l’assassin (2002), a playful film, necessarily more intimate because it was shot with his family in New Brunswick. Côté is heard behind the camera, accomplice and narrator of a truly fake day of labour. He shows us machines, potatoes, labour, while making a perilous lateral pass to his subjects, who become fictionalized without our knowledge. We can see subtle hints of the film critic obsessed by Bresson and his ‘models’, satisfied with ‘being’ instead of ‘playing’ as part of a mise-en-scène focused on an estrangement of emotions meant to allow breathing room. While we discussed suffocation earlier, nothing in Côté’s work seems more airy than his films about labour: Carcasses (2009), Joy of Man’s Desiring (2014), A Skin So Soft (2017), trustful films focused on passing the baton of fiction to the people onscreen.

While the majority of his themes and directing strategies – there’s a lot of tactic involved in shooting these beautiful films in a pre-HD digital era – are sublimated within the masterwork that is Drifting States (2005), Côté would sign two more shorts as part of Kino, two last laps before entering a new phase in his career. Tennessee (2005, shot in parallel to the Festival du nouveau cinéma) and Les jouets (2005, shot during the Festival de Trouville), directed after he had won the Golden Leopard of the video competition at Locarno the same year, plays on false pretences, on cinema’s ability to provoke unrest and to unravel ordinary situations. Whether is it by juxtaposing phone sex wailings over the routine of a hotel maid or by casting Christian LeBlanc, his actor from Drifting States, as a sinister toy-totting character, these shorts conclude the resurgence of themes and designs inspired by the first part of Denis Côté’s work, while still offering a clear taste of things to come.

This process of analogy and cinephilic archaeology could go on forever, but to further your enlightenment, we propose instead that you download the free booklet available above: a selection of more than 25 of the best texts written by Denis Côté during those same years 1999-2005, while he was a film critic for Montreal weekly ICI. As a further supplement to this program, we also propose an exclusive and paleontological finding: Drifting States’ location scouting tape, edited with care by Joël Morin-Ben Abdallah (the crafty editor behind Sophie Bédard-Marcotte’s films). Another way to reveal the inner workings of Denis Côté’s cinema, his origin, his education, his transformation into a genuine auteur figure, uncompromising and dedicated to finding new ways of filming.