un été comme ça Denis Côté Fantasia premiere Montreal to-do list to do

Denis Côté explores sex on screen with his latest film, Un été comme ça

We spoke to the Montreal filmmaker about how his new film was informed by misogynist clichés, vintage Quebec exploitation cinema and the women in front of and behind the camera.

With his latest film, Un été comme ça, Denis Côté revisits the origins of contemporary Quebec cinema that was defined by movies like Valérie, Deux Femmes en Or and the masterworks of Gilles Carle. It was cinema that unabashedly leaned into exploitation to explore burgeoning female sexuality as it related to the changing cultural mores of the province post-Quiet Revolution.

Shot in textured 16mm, the film focuses on treating three young women “suffering” from “hypersexuality.” Léonie (Larissa Corriveau), Geisha (Aude Mathieu) and Eugénie (Laure Giappiconi) are sent away to an idyllic countryside retreat to receive treatment. Opening on tight close-ups, we understand from the film’s earliest moments that we are entering a reality-adjacent world where dream, memory and sensation blur lines of conscious and subconscious perception. 

Speaking over the phone with Cult MTL, Denis Côté discussed making a film about female sexuality, working with collaborators and reviving a dying trend. 

Justine Smith: Do you wanna talk a little bit about the choice of introducing characters with a series of extreme, almost invasive close-ups?

Denis Côté: I wouldn’t say the introduction was supposed to be funny, but it was supposed to be ridiculously over-serious. The point of departure of the story was misogynist clichés. I decided to make this film when I read Nymphomania: A History by New York historian Carole Groneman. In that book, she explains how, since the beginning of time, women’s desire has always been taken care of by men, science and psychiatry. And a word like nymphomaniac is synonymous with misogyny. Because when we don’t know how to deal with a woman’s desire, we say, “oh, she’s a nymphomaniac, or she’s hypersexual,” and we’re gonna send her to some sort of treatment. 

That’s why I decided to create that sort of fake retreat, which we can agree doesn’t exist. It’s a bit “farfelu” — there’s even a guy there, and, of course, there wouldn’t be a guy. I wanted the first 10 minutes to be overtly serious to show the vanity of science. This pregnant psychiatrist says she wants this thing to last 25 years. It’s just vanity. We are going to take care of your desire and troubles, and that’s why I decided that the camera would be extremely invasive with these extreme, tight close-ups, and then the film would turn on itself. All the workers are as fucked up as the girls themselves. Then at the end of the film, (the question is) who has the problem? Who needs the treatment? Who is sick, and who isn’t sick? It doesn’t matter anymore, and the retreat didn’t mean anything. We just stayed for 2 hours and 15 minutes with complex human beings and listened to them. That was the only treatment that was valuable to me.

JS: Some of the critiques have been harsh, suggesting that, as a man, you shouldn’t have made this kind of film. Some audiences aren’t necessarily picking up on the comedy or irony in the film.

DC: I’m funny, and my films have always been funny, but they look super dramatic. You are lost if you don’t want to look at the second level. In this film, there’s humour, but many people will just be extremely basic about it. They will use that good old “male gaze” criticism. They just read the synopsis, so they won’t see the humour. They look at who made the film, and it’s already, I wouldn’t say “cancelled,” but I just don’t want to give them too much attention. They won’t see when I’m telling you this therapy is bogus. They won’t see it. They think a man went where he’s not supposed to go.

Initially, there is ambiguity. There’s distance; there’s humour. It’s delicate, and in French, we have this word, “bienveillant” — benevolent in English. If I did something wrong, please tell me! So far, so good, except for a category of people who didn’t see the film. How can I fight that? I think the role of an artist has always been to explore the “other.” You’re supposed to be curious about what you are not, but nowadays, you’re supposed to make films about who you are and what you know and stay inside your box. So yes, I’m a guy and made a film about female sexuality. Women are allowed to make those films, too, they have the space to express themselves, and if they want to make a movie about male sexuality, it’s allowed. Some people say it’s courageous to make a film like mine. I don’t know where they see the courage. It’s just a subject. But you know, it’s 2022, blah blah blah. Except for places like, I don’t know, Letterboxd, people are quite cool with the film. They see it as serious but made with a good sense of responsibility.

JS: These criticisms also end up downplaying the autonomy and involvement of the actors, as if your cast doesn’t know what kind of movie they’re agreeing to play in. 

DC: With every film I make, I’m good friends with my actors long before we shoot. It’s not like TV, where we just show up at eight in the morning one day and start working. The German actress (Anne Ratte-Polle) learned French for the film and was excited about it. We talked about all the intimacy. They knew we would be doing what scenes and where the camera would be. You must list all the scenes and all the agents, and everybody signs a contract. You can’t improvise anything! I can’t go on set and behave like this big auteur who can do whatever I want. I can’t just say, “Hey, get naked and go in the shower.” I’m not allowed to do that, and I play by the rules. It’s all about communication and trust; these three girls were so generous and excited by the film. 

Larissa even told me it’s much easier to be naked for a film like this, exploring this kind of subject, than a short scene where she’s naked (without that context). That’s hard. She understands that the whole movie is about the idea of intimacy and sexuality. The bondage scene was hard. It took six months. What you see on screen was her eighth or ninth session. She did what she needed to do. We never had an intimacy coordinator. We all trusted each other. They’re all giving interviews now, and none took any issue with how things were done.

Long before we shot, I asked them to read different script versions. They gave me their opinions. Laure (Giappiconi) would point out scenes and say, “It’s written by a man.” I’d say, “Oh really? Why?” and she’d tell me, “I’m going to tell you why!” It was fascinating to listen to them, and I would change the script. We called a sex therapist, a sexologue, and she came to the office to talk about sex for two hours. The journey was as fun as the film itself. 

I liked listening to my collaborators; having a woman edit the film was also very important. (Dounia Sichov) would say things like, I don’t know if we need this scene. “I didn’t come to Montreal (because she was French) to edit that scene that way. It’s not what I feel.” It was a very feminist thing, and I’d say, okay, I want to see how you see it, and we’d make changes. You have to make a film with complete communication and openness, or you’re just this auteur who does what they want. That’s not my style at all. If I make a movie, I listen to my collaborators. 

JS: Quebec has a long tradition of films that explore female sexuality, and that changed the landscape of our cinema. Do you feel this film is in dialogue with that tradition?

DC: When I read Nymphomania, it was a spark. There was another spark, though, before. I was at a tavern with friends, and we were like, “Where are those exploitation films we used to make in the 1970s like Valérie?” and we were laughing. Would you believe if the Canada Council for the Arts gave me $50,000, and I would just undress a bunch of actresses? How would people react in 2022? We were laughing about how we wouldn’t be allowed to. Nobody can do that. 

But the discussion became more serious, and I asked, “Can you name Quebec films that talk explicitly about sex with nudity?” We could name maybe Rodrigue Jean, Nuit #1 and then Les Salopes. Then we were back to Le Déclin de l’empire américain, and that’s almost 40 years ago now.

Are we just prudes? How come the French do that Vieux-Cochon cinema, and we don’t? That was the first discussion, a spark. Then I read the book and decided to write something. It was more serious, with interesting female characters without the desire to shock anybody. Nothing is shocking in the film; it’s very cerebral. It’s not Catherine Breillat or Gaspar Noé in 2003. I didn’t want this film to be controversial.
I’m still curious if someone can make a Porky’s film in 2022. I don’t think we need it, but it’s that kind of cinema that just doesn’t exist anymore. ■

Un été comme ça, directed by Denis Côté

Un été comme ça by Denis Côté opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 19.

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