Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Mademoiselle Kenopsia — Denis Côté [TIFF ’23 Review]

September 15, 2023

Looking over the 25 years’ worth of productions by French-Canadian auteur Denis Côté, one discerns a kind of creative restlessness. Not only is Côté a prolific filmmaker; he’s also someone who has thus far avoided developing a clear, signature style. There are certainly thematic similarities across many of Côté’s films, most notably an interest in outsiders or those hovering in the margins of society. But if you offered viewers a blind taste test, it’s very likely they may think what they’re sampling are the works of several different filmmakers. From experimental documentaries like Bestiare (2012) and A Skin So Soft (2017) to patiently observed art films, such as Carcasses (2009) and Curling (2010), to rather accessible arthouse fare like Boris Without Beatrice (2016) and Ghost Town Anthology (2019) or one-off experiments like Wilcox (2019) and Social Hygiene (2021) — Côté appears to get an idea, go with it, and carry it no further.

While I’ve always admired Côté’s films, I have yet to completely embrace one. His most fully realized, in terms of character and atmosphere, is probably Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013), which again bears little resemblance to others that he’s made. While watching his latest, Mademoiselle Kenopsia, it occurred to me that Côté’s tendency to move all around the aesthetic gameboard has kept his filmmaking in a rather inchoate state of development. Whereas another filmmaker would look back at Kenopsia (or any of the other films), identify its strengths and weaknesses, and then build on those strengths, Côté just keeps moving on, and this results not only in a general unevenness in his oeuvre, but also a sense of underdevelopment. Each subsequent film could be better, but Côté chooses instead to begin again from the ground up. The only other filmmaker who exhibits this tendency to the same extent is probably Takashi Miike, whose audience is not entirely distinct from Côté’s — though the former’s fans do tend to come to the movies with quite different expectations.

At the start of Mademoiselle Kenopsia, Côté gives us fixed-frame shots of various unpopulated corners of a building that has fallen into disrepair. That’s to say, the space stands alone and asserts its own unique ambiance well before we’re introduced to our unnamed main character (Côté regular Larissa Corriveau). We observe the woman walking around this empty building, gazing at its peeling paint and disused fixtures; we admire the subtle ways that light dapples the barren walls. Although most of what we see tells us that the building is a decommissioned church, there are other spaces that look like a medical facility, and still others that resemble a business office. It’s fairly evident that Côté is employing creative geography, editing the space together out of several different locations. Corriveau’s watcher-wanderer is the only constant.

These early portions of Kenopsia are reminiscent of James Benning’s films, especially his recent Maggie’s Farm (2020), a structural study of empty spaces at his place of employment, Cal Arts. But soon, Corriveau is on the telephone speaking to an unseen, unheard interlocutor. She articulates all the themes and ideas that Kenopsia had left implicit up to that point: the beauty of decay, the loneliness of abandoned spaces, the overwhelming sense of hauntology permeating the film. Even if we allow that Côté is not intending to make a non-narrative film and is more interested in a Beckett-style drama about dislocation and time, there’s still a nagging disappointment that Kenopsia’s text works so hard to tell us what we’re supposed to be seeing, when it’s right in front of us. (Near the end of the film, we hear a radio show host actually define “liminal space.”)

“Kenopsia,” of course, is a philosophical concept relating to the sad nostalgia one experiences when seeing spaces that were once bustling with activity but are now just standing vacant. This is a popular idea right now, since the rapid shifts of hyper-capital have resulted in a plethora of modern ruins: defunct shopping malls, abandoned theme parks, old sports stadiums where the roar of the crowd has been replaced by the dull echo of room tone. One aesthetic outgrowth of this has been the “Backrooms” genre of web-based cinema, which treats empty buildings as portals to another, possibly sinister dimension. So Côté’s film is certainly stepping into a particularly robust cultural conversation.

However, Mademoiselle Kenopsia can’t seem to make up its mind as to exactly what it wants to say. At some points, Corriveau seems to be a supernatural being, protecting this realm in perpetuity. At other points, she seems like an all-too-human caretaker, so overcome with cabin fever that she’s about to jump the bones of a workman (Olivier Aubin) who has come to install a camera. In the middle of the film, she finds a stranger (Evelyne de la Chenelière) who delivers a single-take monologue about embodiment. Instead of allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about Kenopsia, Côté provides a surfeit of explanations and invites us to adopt our favorite. 

Mademoiselle Kenopsia is a film besotted with minimalism and absence, so it’s ironic that a primary criticism of it would be that its maker forgets that less is more. The film’s most compelling aspect is Côté’s use of film and video projection to create flickering, kinetic light particles in tucked-away corners — as if actual spirits were trapped in the forgotten walls. But as seductive as these moments are, they specifically recall another film, Pat O’Neill’s criminally underseen The Decay of Fiction (2002), and its spectral tour of the interior remains of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. That film refrains from verbal explanations and just charts the hollowed-out halls of a structure with historic import, letting its ghosts hover along the corridors. O’Neill’s film avoided literal explanations and allowed the walls to speak. If Côté had taken a similar approach, Mademoiselle Kenopsia would have been that much more haunting.

Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 3.