Joy of Man’s Desiring

Michael Pattison

In profile, with her back half-turned away from us and her face half-turned toward us, a young woman speaks bluntly. “When you make it here you should feel lucky… If you have self-respect, if you’re a gentleman, I’ll show you my secrets… Be polite, respectful, honest, or I’ll destroy you.” Such seductive words!

In the montage that follows the opening scene of Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, though, it becomes apparent that the words spoken by this elusively quiet queen of destruction refer perhaps not to her own sexual thirst but the ceaseless call for subjugation and unquestioning obedience of the workplace itself. With brutally punishing sound design and a punchy editorial rhythm, images of heavy machinery prime us for a muscular film ahead.

Joy of Man’s Desiring plays out like a cross between a less intimate version of Dominique Benicheti’s Le Cousin Jules (1972) and the essayistic agitprop films Godard and pals began to make towards the late 1960s. Unlike Benicheti’s ode to one farmer’s self-sustenance, Côté’s latest movie portrays a collective but alienating milieu of monotonous repetition located in some giant suburban warehouse, one in which human interaction is drowned out by the amplified drones of generators and the rat-a-tat of factory apparatus.

Replacing what might have been Godardian intertitles, meanwhile, are in-scene signs, designed to boost staff morale but doubling as ironic half-threats: “Even the smallest job has to start with a good break”; “If you’re good we’ll give you the work; if you’re very good you’ll get someone to do the work for you.” One character begins to cry out repeatedly: “Working never killed anybody! Why take the risk?”

One of Quebecois Cinema’s finest working directors, Côté pairs a palpably ethnographic sensibility here with a cheeky (if by no means new) stylisation, whereby his workers pose frontally for camera. Indeed, labour itself becomes an ongoing, performative act, one by which these interchangeably anonymous characters retain an identity—and are dragged into a routine of compromise and self-resentment despite early resistance to daily conditions.

Not surprising for a film whose title evokes Bach, there's a musical quality at work here—long before the concluding appearance of a young lad playing a violin. The snippets of narrative that casually emerge across the film’s 70-minute runtime tease at something else, but one senses this—appearing only a year after the world-premiere of its director’s previous feature, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear—is what some might call a transitional work. But if the idiom regarding form (temporary) and class (permanent) is true, Côté has little to worry about.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @m_pattison

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