Berlinale 2021 review: Social Hygiene (Denis Côté)

Even if its title was already conceived in 2015, there is no denying that Denis Côté’s Social Hygiene is at the very least spatially influenced by the COVID crisis that still holds the world in its grip and has turned the 2021 Berlinale into a mainly online affair. Côté’s extremely stagy ninth film has its cast practice social distancing avant la lettre, not only out of regulatory necessity but also because it is thematically fitting. Eschewing any traditional ideas of a narrative, Social Hygiene can be best described as a quasi-absurdist comedy in six conversations between a self-centered man and the five women he disappoints through his indifference and arrogance. Shot almost entirely in tableau style, the film is unlikely to attract a large audience, but lovers of the theatrical and with a penchant for the richness of the French language can surely appreciate this very singular effort by the Canadian helmer.

Antonin (Quebecois actor Maxim Gaudette, best known for his Genie Award-winning supporting role in Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique), is an unempathetic delinquent, a man who cares little for the social mores of the world and all the more for himself, but who wants very much to be part of that world as well. His days are spent on petty theft, his nights in the back of his friend’s Volkswagen. There is much to resent in this adolescent in a man’s body, but the five women in his life, and by extension the viewer, are still in some way hoping for a realignment, a redemption, a change of behavior for the better in their relationships. There is his sister Solveig (Larissa Corriveau), for whom Antonin is a constant source of disappointment. His wife Églantine (Evelyne Rompré), too good and patient with Antonin, qualities he gladly takes advantage of. The beautiful Cassiopée (Eve Duranceau), object of Antonin’s desire who rebukes his approaches. Tax collector Rose (Kathleen Fortin), who is breathing down Antonin’s neck for overdue tax payments. And finally there’s Aurore (Éléonore Loiselle), a victim of his theft who confronts him with his crime. Antonin, never at a loss for words with always a sly remark to win him an argument, now has to come up with the right thing to say to form an apology, something that is completely alien to him.

Since Social Hygiene lacks any sort of formal narrative and is entirely built on the verbal sparring matches between Antonin and the women in his life, Côté opting for the formal settings of tableaux is an intriguing but smart choice, in particular in their wide setup and static mise-en-scene. This largely removes the physical acting from the equation, which focuses the viewer’s attention on the dialogue and the actors’ line delivery. There is a downside to this though, as its alienating effect will keep many in the audience at arm’s length, bewildered by the theatricality of it all. Anachronistic costumes add to the confusion, with some of the women dressed for a century or three back, perhaps intended to signal Antonin’s story as a timeless one. More puzzling is a peculiar cinematographic choice that can best be described as parts of the lens being smeared with Vaseline. All this reduces Social Hygiene to a film for a niche audience. Côté’s film is an intriguing but very specific piece, a film perhaps emblematic of our current time period that ultimately will mostly please Côté devotees.