Director Denis Côté has enjoyed a rare privilege in the film industry – he's never made a film for anyone but himself.
"I never shot anything for TV. I've never shot a commercial, never shot something to pay my rent," he says. "I was lucky enough to work on grants. My films sold a little, so I always maintained a life by just being a filmmaker.
"It's a cool life being a full-time filmmaker," he adds, "but am I a good person?"
These questions of privilege and luck are also at the heart of Côté's new film, Boris sans Béatrice. Does the advantage of a good life, for instance, reflect good moral character? Does the desire to live your life one way, at your discretion, come into conflict with the way others must live theirs? While Côté, a former film critic for radio and for ICI magazine in Quebec who was known to dish it out, is not one to mince words, his frankness is balanced in his cinematic work with an astute self-awareness and playful curiosity.
Boris sans Béatrice just premiered at this year's Berlinale, and was the opening selection of the Rendez-cous du cinéma Québécois festival in Montreal last month. Told with the cutting morality of Grecian myth, the film is a fairy-tale portrait of a man in conflict with his own hubris.
Boris (James Hyndman), who has had nearly everything in life handed to him on a silver platter, conflates his good fortune with moral superiority. But then a mysterious man, played by Denis Lavant, enters his life and suggests this sin is why Boris's wife is struck by a severe case of melancholia. Until Boris reforms, his wife will be trapped in limbo.
Some audiences likely won't want to relate to Boris, a disaffected one per center. The character, Côté says, is "based on guilt. Why would I be interested in such a guy's problems? I think a lot of people would make the same film, but they would make sure to crush the character. You need to destroy the bourgeois character – I didn't do that."
Côté adds that his film is not about class, and is instead much funnier than how the critics have treated it thus far. (Variety's Guy Lodge, for instance, criticized the film as "a brittle, no-joke comedy of unchecked privilege that maintains the tone of social satire without ever alighting on a specific target.")
Still, the director doesn't hold it against anyone – "A bad review packed with good arguments makes me think," he says. "Honestly, I change things on my next projects based on intelligent people who wrote about my films." Côté does not see himself as above criticism – he embraces it.
Boris, on the other hand, does not, especially when his status is threatened. It is not only wealth that gives you leverage in life, after all: It's beauty, intelligence and chance. Almost without fail, Boris is laid bare and at the mercy of the women in his life, but he resists their power, to often comic extremes.
In stark contrast, Côté struggles with his power as a director. It's one of the reasons he prefers his smaller projects. "If I'm surrounded by a big team of well-paid people, I tend to be more authoritarian. That's not super good. So, it weighs on me and after a while I think that secretly I prefer those small films with three or four people that are not there for money."
It's one of the reasons Côté keeps busy. "I made two short films in 2015 – do you really think I need to make short films?" he asks. "I could just sit and wait for my three million and make my next film, but it makes me feel so alive. I'm really afraid of growing old, and becoming bourgeois with filmmaking." There is a gentleness to his tone, even when his words can easily be misread as arrogance – he commands attention through soft-spokenness and laughter.
While Côté holds people to a high standard, it's only what he demands of himself – it is his love for people that drives his passion. "A lot of people are studying cinema, because they are poète maudit," he says. "They think they can make their vision but they're not even able to go shake hands with somebody. Cinema is not about being a poet, it's about being around good people."
Boris sans Béatrice is playing now in Montreal and opens in Toronto on March 18.