New York Film Festival
With its tableau aesthetics and mechanical humor (in Bergsonian terms), Social Hygiene is a hilarious take on the ridiculousness of performative decorum in our social interactions. A satire of social norms and human communication in long static shots immediately reminds us of the master of this cinema, Roy Andersson, with his “human trilogy.” But Denis Cote’s film is full of dialogue, unlike the quiet cinema of Andersson. While Andersson focuses on humans’ inability to communicate with each other, Cote is more interested in how we waste words, time, and our own emotions by depending on arbitrary “social hygiene” norms in our communications.
Social Hygienes is composed of single-shot scenes with interludes that deviate from this dominant style. Atonin, the main character, goes from one scene to another, interacting with different women, from his family members to a government representative and a stranger looking for him. The juxtaposition of visual and aural elements from different historical periods has created an anachronistic narrative, which escapes time. This, along with a location that lacks any specific character create a time and space that evades any specification. Even the French spoken by characters is a combination of French and Quebecois dialects.
Denis Cote pointed to the soundtrack of his film as an element that distinguishes his work from theater. He also stated in the Q&A that he could not imagine this film taking place indoors and that way, the film would have turned into a sitcom. However, he has failed to choose and use a location that could provide a proper space for him to implement a mise en scene that adds to the narrative and humor of the film. Cote’s use of soundtrack adds to the narrative and does cause humor by creating both congruous and incongruous relationships between what we hear and what we see or what’s taking place in the story. He has used the space relatively better in two scenes, where he is working with three characters in the frame. Their arrangement and movements within the space add to the narrative and create humor. But going back to Roy Andersson, we can see in his films how one can stage such a static long take-based comedy even indoors and make it truly cinematic if the mise en scene is designed carefully and with a careful consideration of the space that does not work as a mere background.
Cote has shot this humble film in 4 days, and the result is still impressive. It does get a lot of laughs and it communicates with its audience without stuttering. His human comedy of ridiculing our performative politeness is much needed at this time, a time when hypocrisy rules in the society and arbitrary norms of decorum are only working to damage our means of communication.