One of the many Cannes subplots obscured by Lars Von Trier’s latest millstone-in-the-shoe provocation was the presence of three French-Canadian films along the Croisette: 20-year old wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s seriocomic How I Killed My Mother, grown-up wunderkind Denis Villeneuve’s superb Montreal massacre memorial Polytechnique, and Denis Côté’s nearly sui generis landscape drama Carcasses, which will make its English-Canada premiere as part of this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Côté’s 2005 debut Les Etats Nordiques bore the English-language title Drifting States, which more or less sums up his aesthetic: his work ebbs and flows between the imperatives of documentary and drama. Les Etats Nordiques begins as a Bressonian drama about a man who euthanizes his mother and then migrates towards non-fiction in an isolated Québecois hamlet whose real-life residents become characters. Neither the claustrophobic psychodrama Our Private Lives (2007) nor the gorgeously lensed backroads thriller All That She Wants (2008) could really be classified as documentaries, but by placing the emphasis on environment (both take place in rural Quebec) as opposed to narrative, Côté continued his own private drift away from the mainstream.
With Carcasses, he’s gone even further afield, although his hand has never been surer. Shot in Saint-Amable, Quebec, in just eight days as part of Côté’s residency through the Montreal-based art center PRIM, the film focuses its attention on Jean-Paul Colmor, a 74-year old junkman whose sprawling property looks like the dumping ground for Western Civilization. Colmor’s claim to fame lies in the 4,000 cars littering the fields around his house (he makes a living selling the parts), but his personal space is even more spectacularly cluttered. The sheer assemblage of degraded objects—piled on shelves, scattered on the floor, and stuck to the ceiling—suggests an interior-design magazine layout shot by Edward Burtynsky. Côté’s static DV camera renders the detritus tactile in a series of striking, symmetrical tableaux, but it’s hard to take our eyes off Colmor, who prowls the grounds like a solitary king. At first, he seems oblivious to the camera—the first ten minutes showing him at work, unfold entirely without dialogue—but then he starts to acknowledge it, at first subtly (a pointed look here and there) and then explicitly. At one point, he offers a rundown of his weekly schedule that hints at a life beyond the scrap pile: he claims to have a son, and a wife—and a girlfriend, too.
So far, we seem to be watching some strange species of profile-doc, an austere portrait of a rugged individualist. But, this being a Côté film, the game suddenly changes. About halfway into the 70-minute running time, Colmor receives unexpected visitors—a quartet of teenagers with Down’s syndrome, whose appearance challenges Carcasses’ claim to authenticity even as it deepens the film’s engagement with reality beyond the junkyard.
“I’d say Carcasses is a reversal of Drifting States,” offers Côté. “This time, we use documentary as a way to access fiction. One is cannibalizing the other. I still have the strong impression that by blending documentary and fiction, you can achieve something cinematically surprising or, if you’ll excuse the pretension, something ‘new.’ It has something to do with the following question: ‘OK, here’s reality, I don’t want to change it, I must respect it, I mustn’t re-create it, I mustn’t alter it but … how can I control it?’”
Côté met Colmor in 2006, when he shot a scene for Our Private Lives on his property. “I never forgot him,” says Côté. “He’s the last of the Mohicans, very friendly, eccentric and generous. He knows he lives outside of the world but at the same time, he has an amazing social life and a large family.” Côté acknowledges that it would have been easy to simply make a straight documentary about Colmor, but that his interests lay more in the union of man and environment. “_Carcasses_ is about a place, not about a man. And I had the impression that we’ve seen enough of those documentaries about lonely people, I wanted to try something more risky. There’s a poetic argument in Carcasses: that giant junkyard/car cemetery is the meeting point for all outcasts or free-minds of the world, and Colmor decided to live there.”
It’s arguable that Carcasses tips its hand a bit in a scene featuring two women who intrude on his work to take photographs and ask him questions about his “marginality.” They might be surrogates for Côté himself, who says that his interest in rural settings is linked to his discomfort in metropolitan settings. “Downtown Montreal will never be mine. I feel small and uninspired in the city. I was born in a New Brunswick village but I never lived in the countryside. I don’t own a car and I don’t have a license so being ‘outside Montreal’ for me is like a dream and is automatically inspiring. The countryside is like a myth for me, therefore a place to conquer, a place that can ‘be mine’… a place I consider ‘marginal’ in my oh-so-urban birdbrain.”
This question of marginality proves double-edged in Carcasses’s second half. Colmor’s retreat from society appears to be self-willed, but what about the intruders? In his otherwise admiring Cannes review, Variety’s Rob Nelson framed the film’s second half as a “sketchy provocation,” wondering whether Côté meant to equate his handicapped characters with Colmor’s discarded automobiles.
This connection is strengthened by the revelation that one of them is dying. It seems that he has been brought to Colmor’s automotive graveyard to be buried—a task undertaken with the proprietor’s help.
With this development, Carcasses takes a hard turn out of documentary territory, albeit without sacrificing its aesthetic equilibrium: the burial is shown from the same slightly distanced perspective as other scenes of Colmor “at work.” Côté would claim that he’s using documentary tactics to access fiction, but the give-and-take goes in both directions. Less important than the kids’ practical or symbolic function within the narrative is the simple fact of their appearance onscreen—these are not people we’re used to seeing onscreen, and even then usually only in a journalistic or else saccharine context.
“Far from any message, symbolism, or even gratuitous provocation, I just wanted to create a real, filmic or mental space where all outcasts can live together outside the pressure of our so-called society,” says Côté, who met his collaborators through the Quebec Down Syndrome Association. “I thought they [the Association] would refuse to even talk to me, but instead they thanked me for offering them something else than ‘the poor little kid with Down’s syndrome’ in a soap or a TV series. I didn’t cast them: they guided me towards the four with the most open-minded parents. I was walking on a thin line of exploitation making the film. I knew it because I couldn’t intellectualise the project with them. They would just obey me, and that was terrifying, ethically speaking. Then one of their mothers told me that what I was offering them in making a film was probably the most rewarding experience of their life. For once, they can be ‘stars’ and forget about their difference. From that moment on, I was relieved and could go on with the project.”
Côté is hardly the first filmmaker to wrestle with these concerns: one contemporary analogue might be the Argentine auteur Lisandro Alonso, whose astonishing films Los Muertos (2004) and Liverpool (2008) have similarly weathered accusations of exploitation with regard to non-professional subjects living in isolated locations. “I know Lisandro’s work,” says Côté. “[At Cannes] some journalists talked about connections with Alonso, or Albert Serra, or even Werner Herzog. All of this is very flattering, of course. It’s no accident if today many young filmmakers feel like everything has been said or told story-wise. Maybe we want to come back to the essential: a filmmaker fighting against his environment or a filmmaker trying to be in communion with it. I know that some will disagree and say it’s just post-modern navel-gazing, but for me—for us—there’s still a story to be told by filming a human presence or a landscape, or a human presence trying to find his right place in a landscape!”
This description could just as easily apply to the filmmaker himself. At a time when the titans of our own cinematic landscape seem hesitant or unable to stray from familiar territory, Côté has boldly devoted himself to cultivating the spaces in between.