Montreal director Denis Côté will never go Hollywood

An interview with Côté about his ninth film, Boris sans Béatrice, and his dedication to breaking cinematic codes.

Boris Sans Beatrice
James Hyndman and Dounia Sichov in Boris Sans Béatrice

No one would accuse Denis Côté of taking the easy way out. Boris sans Béatrice is Côté’s ninth feature in 10 years, a run of films that has seen Côté celebrated by the cinema community and honoured by many festivals — but not one that has resulted in too much commercial success. With that comes a lot of freedom for Côté to make the films that he wants to make.

“Why would I curl up into a ball in my bed because I got some bad reviews? Why would I pop champagne bottles because I got good ones, though?” says Côté. “I work very fast. I was a film critic myself, I know the industry and I know that if they don’t like this one, they’ll like the next one. I’d say I’m pretty bulletproof in that sense. Boris sans Béatrice is another Denis Côté film. It fits in my world.”

Boris sans Béatrice is the story of Boris Malinovsky (James Hyndman), a rich industrialist whose wife (Simone-Élise Girard) has gone nearly catatonic from what appears to be depression. She barely speaks, cannot do anything by herself and is left under the care of Klara (Isolda Dychauk) in the Malinovskys’ country home. Boris is carrying on an affair with a co-worker (Dounia Sichov) and trying to mend his relationship with his bleeding heart liberal daughter (Laetitia Isambert-Denis) when he’s visited by a very strange man (Denis Lavant) who seems to know everything about Boris.

Denis Côté
Denis Côté

“Filmmakers always talk a little about themselves in their movies,” says Côté about the genesis of the idea. “Boris Malinovsky isn’t me, but when you’re making your ninth film, you don’t have the same urgency as you would have making your first. You don’t want to change the world as much; you want to pursue your style and explore some corners you’ve never been in before. The idea came from within myself in the sense that I woke up one morning thinking: I’m very lucky that I get to pay the bills being a filmmaker. Everything I’ve ever made was ‘a film by’; I never made an ad, a television show, a music video, and I really just live off my films. Some people might envy me; for many, that’s considered success, so what do I do with that? Are there other parts of my world or my personality that are more… questionable?”

“It’s the story of a guy who has everything — not me, I don’t have everything — but nevertheless finds himself doubting,” he continues. “Boris hasn’t done anything wrong, but doubt comes knocking at his door. That’s something that happens to everyone, no matter the social class. I had to put images and sounds to a story where a guy essentially talks to his own conscience for 90 minutes – you’ve gotta come up with some ideas. His wife’s sick — there’s no way I’m making a dense, serious melodrama out of this. I liked the tonal shifts I had in my previous film, Vic + Flo — I wanted this one to be all over the place. I told myself I’d go and explore something I don’t know much about: the rich.”

Côté has accrued somewhat of a reputation as a “festival filmmaker”; his films are well-regarded by critics but often seen as “difficult” by audiences. “I’ve always played with the audience’s expectations,” he says. “I used to make hermetic films, more for myself than for the audience, but after making Bestiaire, I started thinking about the public. The result is a movie by a director who controls everything, which could seem authoritarian to some, but I think cinema has a playful side that we have to reckon with. I don’t hesitate to call filmmaking a game; it’s not pretty language, but I’ll own up to it. You thought I was going there but I wasn’t — but is that too much to ask of an audience?”

“I’ve always played with the idea of leaving the audience wondering what they’ve just seen,” he says. “That’s the kind of film I like to watch — I like being lost in a movie, whereas most viewers need to be able to see the entire picture. For them, a film has to be summed up in a sentence or two. I love destroying cinematic codes. The result isn’t exactly experimental in nature, but just something that’s overly ‘off.’ I have the pretention of making films for the active viewer, not the passive one. That one, the viewer who wants it all spoonfed, is likely to walk out of my films frustrated.”

That commitment to playing with audience expectations also means that you’re not likely to see Côté move to Hollywood like some of his fellow Québécois directors. “I don’t know if I’d even be able!” he says when asked if he could be tempted into “straighter” material. “Sometimes I’ll shoot a scene and, to me, it’s all there — and then I noticed that there are 10 people who have no idea what’s going on. I’m allergic to convention. As a viewer and as a former film critic, I’ve seen so many conventional films that at some point, there’s a mechanism inside of me that tells me I can’t just do a certain scene in a certain way. We’ve just seen it too much. I’m constantly searching for the original equation to lead a scene; I’m always dosing my own originality. If you asked me to shoot an action scene, a bank heist, for example, I think I’d refuse any and all good, efficient ideas.”

Boris sans Béatrice is a moral fairy tale. In a fairy tale, there’s caricature. A fairy tale by definition is naive, simple,” Côté explains. “We lay it on thick, sometimes — the daughter who’s completely to the left, the dad completely to the right — it’s not exactly finessed. It’s not cartoonish, exactly, but I find it amusing. It’s sad to me that some people have called it an ‘existential thriller.’ I mean… at one point he’s naked with the maid and he hears his wife yell, he goes to the second floor, she’s bleeding, he grabs his gun and runs out to talk to an invisible man in a field. It’s a LITTLE funny — it’s not a knee-slapper, but how can you call it an existential thriller?!” ■

Boris sans Béatrice opens (with English subtitles) at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Friday, March 4. (See French-language showtimes and locations here.) Watch the trailer here: