This writer is not necessarily fond of Quebecois director Denis Côté’s experiments, which oscillate between slow-cinema, documentary, and deeply unfunny deadpan comedies. Yet his newest film Mademoiselle Kenopsia, though highly self-conscious, is strangely effective, connecting for once his formal and thematic concerns––if simply because the experiment in “boredom” is put to a more pointed use than the easy festival requirements.
At only 77 minutes, Mademoiselle Kenopsia doesn’t wear out its welcome, other than maybe a few sequences that ring tedious or suggest the film is filling time. We find our recognizable figure of the times, and modern Jeanne Dielman figure-of-sorts (Larissa Corriveau), working a job somewhere between janitor and watchwoman (like if you wanted a whole movie of that time in The Simpsons where Milhouse was a night watchman at the cracker factory Bart bought). Her job takes place in a rotting figure of the past: an abandoned office building in a time when most work from home. An effectively creepy atmosphere built with the ghostly hum of the place, with crackling electrical currents a complimentary, recurrent image alluding to an industrial past.
Touching a bit on Tsai Ming-liang’s feeling of modern alienation (though breaking the strict master-shot formalism with the occasional hand-held close-up of her sweeping), the monotony goes down a little easier with the help of the lead’s expressive features and performance. Throughout the film we see her talking on the phone to an unidentified figure, going through a seeming existential crisis where she remarks “I’m killing time and in return the time kills me” while pondering life on earth in 2050. Essentially, she’s never comfortable in the moment she’s living in, be it past, present, or future.
Dialogue is open about themes––she literally listens to a radio broadcast concerning liminal spaces––yet there’s something powerful in how Côté taps into the alienation of this time where we frequently check our phones to wile away time at dull jobs, only to become further alienated from the real, tangible world. Every waking moment here is concerned with something that’s missing, an effective representation of the depressed, anxiety-ridden millennial.
Côté’s missteps come when breaking the isolation by having our lead make the occasional face-to-face interaction with people (or maybe apparitions?). A cameo appearance by Quebec film veteran Évelyne de la Chenelière as a white-t-shirt wearing, chain-smoking, highly opinionated Gen-Xer who feels the need to deliver a long monologue is a case of the film feeling like it’s running out of ideas. One thinks the experiment would be a little purer if she didn’t interact with anyone, the apocalyptic feeling conjured better with feelings that her phone calls are her simply talking to herself more resonant for the audience.
Yet the film makes an even bigger risk into the blatantly obvious with a flashback / dream sequence near the end (who knew you could still feel alienated at an EDM festival?) but pulls that off. It’s a definite balancing act making a deliberately alienating film that’s also willing to spell out so much. But at its best, the two form a more mysterious ambience.
Mademoiselle Kenopsia premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.