Joy of Man’s Desiring
Directed by Denis Côté
January 16-22 at Anthology Film Archives
Denis Côté’s essayistic work, both nonfiction and narrative, most immediately recalls that Patti Smith imperative of belonging, “outside of society they’re waiting for me.” The subjects of his films, whether junked vehicles, on-the-lam females or animals on display, exist in that liminal space right outside public perception but still within an existing framework of semi-normalcy; blink and you miss them. This philosophical underpinning can also be applied to his newest, fascinating work, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
The scant action occurs entirely within a plastics factory, a setting with manifold interpretations: people flock there out of both obligation and aspiration. Côté’s film inspects both avenues, elliptically, by alternating somewhat disjointedly between entrancing tracking and static long takes of the workers doing their duties, and dramatizations of what their inner monologues must be, enacted in dialogue to other workers. (The workers from the documentary footage play versions of themselves in vignettes scripted by the filmmaker.) The latter, as it’s happening, feels somewhat obvious, but the sum of this effect, that the mechanization of thought manifests from the work itself, becomes entrancing. It’s this ostensibly paradoxical structure, contrived narrative interspersed with observational documentary, that distinguishes Côté as a filmmaker, and Joy of Man’s Desiring, as a more heady examination of the toll of this unavoidably classist work-to-live lifestyle.
Beautiful as they may be, the perfectly composed leering shots of the work, which burst with a quiet energy and color palette, remind temporarily that there is or can be happiness derived from labor. What do these people think? What are their hopes? In one scene, a woman approaches a coworker to inquire about the possibility of poaching his job, a better one in her estimation. His disconnected acquiescence to her request lets you know that there’s no one job that’s better than any other job: the work is inherently numbing, even in its fleeting distractions.
Côté’s signature doc/narrative hybrid approach here illustrates the inability to delineate between man and machine. A grim vision of the future, and something of an intoxicating cautionary tale.