Director Denis Côté
JOY OF MAN’S DESIRING (Que ta joie demeure) B-
Canada (70 mi) 2014 d: Denis Côté official facebook page
The work place is the place where those arriving cross paths with those who are leaving early. —Georges Courteline, (June 25, 1858 – June 25, 1929)
Denis Côté remains something of a radical, underground Québécois filmmaker championing the unfamiliar, including small and unconventional films, where his most recent film Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013) is perhaps his most accessible, through it remains provocatively disturbing, while this is closer to his earlier work Bestiaire (2012), a wordless and minimalist film essay shooting animals living in the closed quarters of an amusement park, observing human behavior through the unpretentious eyes of animals, and vice versa, both seemingly on equal footing. Côté is himself a former film critic from Montreal, and what he brings to his films is a certain objective detachment, where the key is observing without judgment. While this is a free associative and contemplative work that focuses upon the routine aspects of industrial work, accentuating machine operators in nine small factories in Montreal, he establishes a precise rhythm of noise and machine, where humans are simply intermediaries, but slowly introduces a fictional element that finalizes the film. While it may be completely unpretentious, it is quite different from the meticulously austere group of Austrian documentarians, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, OUR DAILY BREAD (2005), Michael Glawogger, WORKINGMAN’S DEATH (2005), SLUMMING (2006), and Whore's Glory (2012), Ruth Mader, STRUGGLE (2003), and Hubert Sauper, DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE (2004), which have a near mathematical precision to them. Instead it remains open ended and ambiguous, where the director intentionally makes no social comment, but simply shows various stages of people at work, including moments of absurdity when a union official, from an apparent approved distance where he is allowed to stand, yells slogans at the workers while they are working.
Initially viewers are greeted by the pounding rhythm of a machine press, including a montage of machines in close-up, while also subjected to a curious opening monologue asking for support, where the audience never sees who the comments are directed to, another worker or a machine (the director?). This schism between man and machine has been the subject of much conjecture since the advent of the industrial age, where the interplay has not always been compatible. As we hear the workers talk to one another, we discover one machine operates at a level of speed that most find dangerous, but that’s what attracts one particular worker to that machine, preferring it to all others, where he is able to utilize his own dexterity to achieve maximum results. Another grows disillusioned with the job, losing interest altogether, where he’s sitting around in a state of depression when he’s approached by a person that could easily be a ghost of the worker’s past, where another worker claims they’re ready to take his place, asking if he’s ready to relinquish his job. This visual sequence may simply be a passing thought in the course of the working day. While workers are routinely seen at their work stations, the presence of the camera in such close proximity would seem to be a distraction and highly intrusive, perhaps dangerously so, due to the precise nature of this kind of skilled work where machines are manipulated into exact positions, where the degree for error is minimal. Certainly one thought about what we see is that we never see the final result of their labor, but only the one piece of the puzzle that each worker is assigned to perform, creating a feeling of incompleteness, as while they are part of the whole, they never seem to be connected to the finished product.
For the filmmaker, he entered into this project without any written script, becoming an improvisational journey that reveals itself over time, an experimental alternative where we are taken on an observational tour of various factory settings—metal working, carpentry, industrial laundry, a garment shop, mattress factory, and coffee roasting. Alternating between people and machines as well as the raw materials that surround them, many toil in a kind of solitary silence, while others remain talkative and gregarious throughout with other staff. Côté catches many of them during their idle rest periods having a quick smoke, but also having extended conversations about their jobs, providing shop talk, including an amusing parable about a crooked employer, or comments about work fulfillment, where one changed workplaces as she was barely noticed at her previous job and felt invisible, but remains just as invisible here as well, offering views of alienation and a sense of demoralization, as they spend half their lives in this claustrophobic environment, while others find a kind of mystical satisfaction in the constant repetitiveness of their actions, as if it offers the opportunity to cleanse the mind. This kind of emptyheaded blankness balances with the focused concentration needed for the more intricate nature of some of the work performed, supplemented by an intriguing sound design by Frédéric Cloutier and Clovis Gouaillier. By introducing fictional characters, some seen offering prayers to their machines, Côté accentuates the kinds of thoughts that might come into play, while also introducing other significant images, where a partially constructed wooden piano is seen at one point, which later introduces the titular Bach chorale Myra Hess plays Bach/Hess "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" YouTube (3:41) heard somewhere off in the distance to the worker’s contemplative thoughts, where this musical reverie is perhaps the idealized sound of their completed work, a kind of sacred musical construction of perfection. What is perhaps missing is the feeling of any joy in the work, amusingly remedied in the final shot. Despite the multiple layers in play, the narrow scope never becomes particularly revelatory, where it doesn’t impress as much as some of the other work by this director.