Review: ‘Social Hygiene’ Is Alienating and Disruptive. Revel in It! By Tyler Simeone.
The roving acting troupes of Central Park can be caught with a little bit of luck: dare to take a bucolic mid-afternoon stroll and you may find yourself trapped midway in an on-the-grass production of The Importance of Being Earnest, realizing why it was you saw a man in full period dress skulking through the trees like a Victorian sasquatch.
Social Hygiene, the most recent experiment from Canadian agitator Denis Côté, plays out much like this—Antonin (Maxim Gaudette), a petty thief and arrogant man-child—is laid into by the five women in his life who’ve found his antics too much to bear: his sister (Larissa Corriveau), his wife (Evelyne Rompré), his lover (Eve Duranceau), a tax collector (Kathleen Fortin), and one of his victims (Éléonore Loiselle).
In extended vignettes, Antonin argues his case to each woman in turn, both partners in the verbal brawl bedecked in 18th century garb, standing at least 15 feet apart in a Québecois field. The result is alienating but ultimately quite playful and profound, a society’s dirty laundry shaken out en plein air.
A film that can be easily criticized for its pretensions (the film really is people yelling at each other in a field for 75 minutes), Social Hygiene vaunts a curiously unconventional presentation: an immobile camera draws attention to the landscape, but a set of smudges on the lens draws an oppositional attention to the film object itself. Antonin and his detractors trade insults at full volume, competing with a truly cacophonous ambience of shrieking insects, crying birds, howling wind, and the bangs of an unplaceable construction site.
Their Central-Park-theater blocking sees each character with feet planted, facing the camera; paired with the affected projection of their voices, the film’s vignettes recall a stripped-down stage performance, forced outdoors as if interrupted by a fire alarm. Against all odds, this peculiar set-up is ultimately quite enjoyable; freed from the rational and expected presentation of interpersonal discord, the viewer can bathe in Social Hygiene’s bizarre pleasures, from the comedy of its verbal combat to the ease of passing clouds illuminating and obscuring the fields’ depth of space.
With each cheeky surprise—including the introduction of a truly kick-ass tragic wave track by Lebanon Hanover—Côté offers an experience both charming in its bewilderment and profound in its disruption.
“Profound” is not a word to be used lightly, but Social Hygiene’s subversion of expectation reaches beyond the level of novelty to touch on something truly thought-provoking. By stripping down the arguments around which the film revolves, the film exposes them in their most elemental form as speech and the people who carry it. Like simmering a sauce down to a sticky reduction, the film simplifies relational and social strife, placing its very heavy burden less on the characters’ contexts than on the space—the physical distance, the pauses in their words—between them.
This is about more than just Antonin and his grating idiosyncrasies: robbed of its systemic framework, the “question” of the social-order outcast—embodied by the archetypal thief—is framed through his relationships to others, ultimately unveiled as a cruel and absurd performance of blame. This may be the titular “hygiene” in question: how, Côté asks, does individualized spite perpetuate societal alienation?
Audacious as always, he turns the question right back around on his critics: how does filmic alienation perpetuate individualized spite? Judging by the film’s spate of Letterboxd detractors, outrage against subversion is a surprisingly easy trap to fall into, an obstacle to mutual understanding that Social Hygiene seems all too familiar with.
Images courtesy of GreenGround Productions.
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