The last several years have seen the influx of a number of films about characters shielding either themselves or their families from the alleged dangers of the world, confining their lives to a greater or lesser degree to the relative safety of the domestic fortress. Call it Shut-In Cinema. To Ursula Meier’s Home, Anders Edström and C. W. Winter’s The Anchorage, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, and Bong Joon-ho’s segment in the anthology film Tokyo!, we can now add Denis Côté’s Curling, making its New York debut at New Directors/New Films. Rivaling The Anchorage, the best of the above listed works, in its combination of utter precision of detail and overwhelming sense of mystery, Côté’s film makes for instructive comparison with the movie it most superficially resembles, Lanthimos’s celebrated tale of overprotective parenting gone bonkers.
In Dogtooth, the central couple confine their three children to the grounds of their suburban home, creating an alternate universe in which they control the very nature of their offspring’s reality, going so far as to alter the meaning of everyday words. Positing a sinister world outside the borders of their hedged-in lawn, the parents keep their children in a state of terror in which they can assert seemingly unlimited control over their spawn. An open-ended allegory with a range of possible interpretations, Lanthimos’s film is a skillful exercise in world creation, but ultimately a limited one: Dogtooth finally feels as constrained and meaningless as the children’s bounded existence.
Curling, which takes place in the only slightly wider world of wintry, rural Quebec, is, by contrast, firmly grounded in the circumstances of a larger reality. Like the parents in Dogtooth, single father Jean-François Sauvageau (Emmanuel Bilodeau) keeps his daughter in a state of overweening isolation and, like the sinister pair in Lanthimos’s film, his reasons are never explicitly made clear, though they’re continually hinted at. For the patriarch of Côté’s movie, the motives for holding 12-year-old Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau, Emmanuel’s real-life daughter) out of school and away from other children have less to do with power and more to do with fear: of the outside world and, perhaps above all, of female sexuality.
Set against the foreboding and stunningly photographed snowscapes of Quebec (witness the marvelous scene of father and daughter walking down a deserted rural highway, wind wafting the banks of snow across the road), Curling is a psychological study that refuses to go deeper than what the naked eye can detect. “Something’s wrong with my head,” Jean-François eventually admits to his daughter, but that’s about all we’re given in the way of concrete explanations. Everything else is glimpsed in the man’s behavior: his retiring demeanor, his terse outbursts when challenged by authority figures, his obvious discomfort and disapproval when his boss at the bowling alley where he works hires a sexy young female cashier.
Eventually, sinister suggestions and strange incidents begin to pile up. Hinting at a past episode that occurred at the bowling alley when Julyvonne was five (“It wasn’t safe for her last time”), Jean-François parries his boss’s suggestion that he bring his daughter along to work just as he rejects the man’s repeated offers to set him up with women. Free to roam the snowy forests of the province while her father’s at work, Julyvonne discovers a caged tiger and a pile of dead bodies, neither of which she reports. Similarly, Jean-François comes across a blood-soaked room in his second job as a motel janitor which he’s instructed to ignore and, later, stumbles upon a dead boy by the side of the street which he takes into his car and stows in his garage.
The mysteries of the world—its brutality, its unsolved crimes—are mirrored by the mysteries of human behavior, but neither is presented as mere obscurantism. Each incident is precisely rendered in terms that are utterly coherent within individual scenes, even as they add up to a splintered view of the world, exciting in both what they reveal and what they conceal. It’s, on a smaller scale, what Jacques Rivette says about the films of Alain Resnais: “The world is broken up, fragmented into a series of tiny pieces, and it has to be put back together again like a jigsaw.” Aesthetically, Côté’s cool, observational technique scarcely resembles the radical fissures employed by the director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Muriel, but the Curling auteur similarly presents his world as a series of glimpses that have to be fitted together in the viewer’s mind in order to make sense of the situation he confronts them with.
Easing off on his restrictions as the film goes on, Jean-François moves from allowing his daughter no more entertainment than the chance to listen to Tiffany’s dated cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” in the comfort of their home (the scene in Côté’s movie that most recalls Dogtooth) to attending a birthday party for his boss at the bowling alley. As he engages the young cashier in conversation for the first time, his daughter runs off with other kids to bowl, having in the words of Jean-François’s boss, “the time of her life.” Is this the start of a new father-daughter dynamic?
Following a brief solo sojourn out into world, which includes sex with a prostitute and the film’s one fantasy sequence (in brightly lit, dreamlike imagery, Jean-François imagines himself achieving a stunning success at the region’s favorite sport, curling), the father returns shorn of his trademark mustache and seemingly ready to normalize his daughter’s life. But given the film’s overwhelming depiction of—and sense of awe at—the mysteries of individual behavior, the future remains as opaque as the film’s barely hinted at past. Still, unlike Lanthimos’s reduction of disconcerting human activity to cynical allegory, Côté is genuinely committed to plumbing the depths of these actions, even as he modestly acknowledges the limits of understanding that inevitably crop up when we set about to honestly explore what it means to be human.
Curling will play on March 26 and 27 as part of this year’s New Directors/New Films.