I am indebted to the writer and critic Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing Côté’s work to my attention; in our digital age, films such as these don’t get the distribution they deserve, almost never play in theaters, and are in general confined to the festival circuit throughout the world. But thankfully, Joy of Man’s Desiring has just become available in the United States as a digital download on Vimeo, and this absolutely superb film, running just 79 minutes, is one of the most impressive achievements of the cinema in 2014.
You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above, and then either view or download the entire film for a modest fee after that – a price that is an absolute bargain for such a mesmerizing, transcendent piece of work. This is the sort of filmmaking that needs to supported on an everyday basis, as an antidote to the non-stop explosions and commercial blandness of mainstream cinema; Côté’s films, part fiction, part documentary, create an unsettling vision of the world that his uniquely his own.
This is what Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin were shooting for with films like British Sounds, in which their Dziga Vertov collective hoped to find common ground with workers, including a memorable tracking shot in an auto assembly plant with a soundtrack of unceasing noise, generated by the manufacturing equipment itself. But Côté’s film goes far beyond Godard and Gorin’s work – and is certainly far less didactic – to give a sort of infernal life to the machines that control women and men on the factory floor, adeptly blending staged vignettes of industrial impersonalization with documentary sequences that chronicle the repetitive tedium of jobs that require labor, and no thought whatsoever – jobs that most people work at for their entire lives, jobs which eventually destroy them and use them up, much like the machines they are forced to operate.
Côté is an extremely prolific filmmaker working out of Quebec, whose many films, including Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, Bestiaire, and Curling offer a disquieting, almost trance-like meditative vision of the modern world, and the alienation and distance that accompanies it. As the presskit for the film notes, “Joy of Man’s Desiring is an open-ended exploration of the energies and rituals of various workplaces. From one worker to another and one machine to the next; hands, faces, breaks, toil: what kind of absurdist, abstract dialogue can be started between human beings and their need to work? What is the value of the time we spend multiplying and repeating the same motions that ultimately lead to a rest – a state of repose whose quality defies definition?”
As Côté himself says of Joy of Man’s Desiring, “there’s no doubt this is the kind of film-essay in the same lineage as my smaller-scale films, which look for the unfindable (Carcasses, Bestiaire) and question language. I take a great deal of pleasure in making films that don’t easily reveal themselves either to me or the viewer. They need to be out there for a long time, they need to get around. We have to put words to these sound-and-image experiments. I hope viewers won’t go crazy; I hope they’ll watch work in action, thought in action, research in action. There’s a little humor, a hypnotic element, some distancing moments, but there is no real issue or end to the film either. I enjoy watching a film get to a moment when I know I am in the process of watching a film. Maybe I don’t understand it, but I turn it over and look at every side to see how we did it; I think about it, let it exist.”
As Stephen Dalton noted in The Hollywood Reporter when the film premiered at The Berlin Film Festival on February 7, 2014, “Quebecois director Denis Côté won a Silver Bear in last year’s Berlinale for his offbeat comic thriller Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, but the formal rigor on display here feels more akin to the director’s unorthodox animal-watching documentary Bestiaire, a left-field Sundance and Berlin favourite in 2012 . . . The film’s non-fiction segments are lightly peppered with dramatic vignettes and poetic touches, including a stern opening monologue delivered straight to camera by an unnamed woman (Emilie Sigouin). ‘Be polite, respectful, honest,’ she warns the viewer, ‘or I’ll destroy you.’ . . .
Moving between different industrial spaces, Côté’s method mostly consists of artfully composed static shots and slow zooms into heavy machinery. These scenes have a stark, vaguely menacing beauty. They are intercut with still-life studies of machinists and carpenters, laundry workers and food packagers. Some are caught in fragmentary conversation, others in sullen and wordless poses. Joy of Man’s Desiring constantly hints at interesting themes – like the psychology of manual labor in a mechanized age, or the broad cultural mix of Francophone immigrants among Quebecois factory workers” but, as Dalton notes, leaves these issues largely unresolved, as they are in real life.
This is thoughtful, crisp filmmaking, which takes genuine risks and at the same time is easily accessible to the average viewer – the film’s running time flies by in what seems to be an instant. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is preparing a major piece on Côté’s work as a whole, and I look forward to it with great anticipation – there hasn’t been nearly enough written about him, and most critics really don’t understand what he’s trying to do, though it seems clear to me. Côté’s cinema is as strong, as compassionate, and as effortlessly masterful as the films of Robert Bresson, and as meditative and humanistic as the films of the great Yasujirō Ozu, who viewed the world, and the human condition, with an equally clear and direct gaze.
Joy of Man’s Desiring, is, in short, one of the most impressive and effective cinematic essays I’ve recently seen on the connection between humans and machines, labor and capital, and the gap between our dreams and what we actually accomplish. See it as soon as you can. It is a stunning piece of work.