Film

Denis Cote’s Spare and Elegant Joy of Man’s Desiring Is an Illuminating Labor Portrait

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Cinema’s fascination with labor can be traced to the art form’s very beginning: The Lumière brothers’ first film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), shows men and women, lunch pails in hand, streaming out of a warehouse. The imprint of this 45-second-long actualité is evident in myriad works, whether fact or fiction, that focus on the daily grind: from Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick Modern Times (1936) to George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s 1957 movie musical The
Pajama Game
(which Jean-Luc Godard, whose films from the 1960s often riffed on Marx’s theories of alienated labor, hailed as “the first left-wing operetta”) to Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005), a globe-spanning documentary on some of the worst jobs imaginable.

Joining this corpus of toil-themed films is Denis Côté’s spare and elegant Joy of Man’s Desiring, which screens at Anthology for a week beginning Friday (and which made its New York debut earlier this month as part of MOMI’s “First Look” series). The Québécois Côté, a former film critic, has directed eight feature-length works since 2005; his latest might be categorized as a documentary, but one whose boundaries are porous enough to permit staged soliloquies, fable-spinning, and a violin performance by a starchily attired tyke before a handful of coverall-clad workers. (The kid plays a segment from the Bach movement that gives Côté’s film its title: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”)

Although most of its 70 minutes consists of hypnotic static shots — punctuated by the occasional close-up or slow zoom — depicting the action inside factories and workshops, Joy of Man’s Desiring begins cryptically. A young woman, her face distinguished by bangs, freckles, and aquiline nose, addresses over her shoulder an unseen interlocutor as she gazes downward and intermittently smiles. Delivering a series of declarative sentences, she seems to be speaking to a co-worker or a lover — or both: “When you make it here, you should feel lucky,” “Everything has a price, not always in money,” “Be polite, respectful, honest, or I’ll destroy you.” Is she describing the conditions on the factory floor? Or do these ominous statements pertain to what happens after one punches out for the day? This woman appears again about 45 minutes later, operating heavy machinery and noting to a colleague, in another scripted moment, “This is half my life.” The words are echoed by others in Côté’s film and ring, depending on the speaker, either as a lament or a boast.

In the more straightforwardly nonfiction segments — the long observational takes of steel being welded, coffee being roasted and bagged, or fabric being cut — the rituals of manual labor are presented unsentimentally. Like Côté’s previous documentary, Bestiaire (2012), filmed at a zoo in Quebec, Joy of Man’s Desiring forgoes obvious didactics and visual cues in favor of letting viewers draw their own conclusions. In both films, the emphasis is on looking and scrutinizing, not passively consuming received wisdom on, say, the degradations of capitalism. There is undeniable beauty, grace, and dignity in many of the routines shown here: workers who whisper a prayer before starting the lethal apparatuses they operate; a droll cross-cultural exchange at a water cooler; scissors and other sharp objects wielded with utmost agility. But equally apparent are the demoralizing aspects of assembly-line labor, particularly the blare signaling that lunch is over, or, just outside the break room that these employees must exit to
return to their posts, the cruel sight of joggers and cyclists, free to pursue leisure in the middle of a sunny day.

“My hands are doing things my brain doesn’t want,” one dispirited laborer tells another during the film’s more narrative-heavy second half. (A few of those with speaking parts, whose characters are never identified by name, have had small roles in previous Côté films.) The appealing clarity of that line nicely rhymes with other aphorisms that pop up throughout Joy of Man’s Desiring, mantras affixed near work stations for all to see: “Even the smallest job has to start with a good break,” reads one above a seamstress’s sewing machine, placed right next to a beefcake centerfold. The adages, whether scripted or not, are tiny declarations of independence, self-
assertions in a heavily regulated and mechanized realm. Workers of the world, recite.

While always absorbing, Joy of Man’s Desiring also allows space for the spectator’s thoughts to drift — on how, for example, the very notion of what constitutes work seems irrevocably vitiated now that “social-media strategizing” is a legitimate (and potentially lucrative) career choice. No matter how humble, the tasks of the various laborers and artisans shown in Côté’s film have an inherent drama and spectacle that the
assignments of brand-management specialists do not. Undeniably, the rhythms — of clanging machines, of humans at work and repose — seen and heard here are the tempo of the quotidian and the repetitive. Yet even in their mundanity, these factory routines are not without their exalted moments — much in the same way that those anonymous Lumière toilers, captured 120 years ago in the simple act of scurrying off to get home or to the café or elsewhere, became the first movie stars.

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