The title of Quebecois director Denis Côté’s latest film, Joy of Man’s Desiring, is a reference to Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, the last movement of Bach’s cantana Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life. Just as the cantana is an ode to Jesus, so Côté’s film is an ode to the machine. It is a bizarre film – in an unsettling inversion, Côté treats the factory setting as the protagonist and the factor workers as the setting. The workers say very little and often, when they do speak to each other, we cannot hear what they are saying because they are drowned out by the diagetic sounds of heavy machinery. It is as though the factory itself is an attention-seeking diva shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!” while her workers hang about in the background head-to-toe in protective garments, now muttering to themselves, now eating in dimly lit cafeterias, now smoking on the side of the highway.
In the opening scene we see the head and shoulders of a woman. Her back is to us, but she has turned her head to the side, as though whispering to us something very intimate. Her language is seductive, “You just have to relax and open your mind. You are safe with me. I’m your best friend…Understand what we’re building here, okay? Because I’m not a machine. I don’t have an ON/OFF switch. I’m not complicated. I’m open. Use your mind and senses to understand me, and we’ll be fine. Be polite, respectful, honest. Or I’ll destroy you, if I want to.” How one should interpret this monologue is unclear. I interpreted it as the factory itself – that omnipotent and omnipresent force, speaking through a worker possessed. The factory welcomes us, the viewer, into her, but threatens to destroy us if we do not pay her to respect she deserves. Thus Côté sets up the film’s central metaphor: the factory as a heartless, unrelenting God.
There is an anecdote, well-known in economics, that Adam Smith uses to describe the division of labour. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith uses the pin factory as an example – if each worker sticks to one task and repeats that task over and over again, the factory will be able to maximize its output of pins. Côté alludes to this notion of specialization many times. On their lunch breaks, instead of discussing their weekends or their families, the workers discuss their respective machines. They are depersonalized, rarely even shot from front on. Most of the scenes of workers talking are shot from the back or from the side. They are dehumanized to the extent that the individual machines are humanized. One of them says, unsmilingly, “When I got here, they put me on a certain machine. I like it, but nobody likes working on that machine. It’s very fast. Some say I’m the one that’s fast. But you can’t go faster than that machine.” In another scene, we find ourselves staring at shelves of boxes. A man wanders in in his uniform, hat and work goggles. He mutters something and wanders out. He appears to be talking to himself, or perhaps he is talking to the boxes themselves. He repeats over and over again, “Working never killed anybody. Why take the risk?” Presumably he is talking about how he hates his job but that he needs to stick it out because he needs his wage to survive. It is an aphorism that he repeats towards the end of the film, this time standing on a factory balcony – a grand orator with no audience.
The film continues much in this same vein. Suddenly we are in a different factory. There are women folding sheets, dressed in uniforms the same colour as their sheets. There is a front-on shot of them leaning against a wall, looking bored and not talking to eachother. They scratch themselves. Then the film cuts to a shot of workers sitting in a totally dark cafeteria – not dimly light, completely dark. They don’t speak. They leave.
It is as though we are being taken on a tour through the factory. The workers themselves are incidental like the tables and chairs. Now there is a tingling noise, and it turns out it is the cantana referenced by the film’s title. It is playing through a tinny radio next to a clock, a hackneyed symbol of the workers’ lives that, yes, we get it, they are wasting away. Another shot: two men listen to the radio. They don’t talk. One eats a biscuit. The other has his hands clasped together and looks up as though praying in a church. By this stage, we feel like we are being beaten over the head with the film’s main (and perhaps only) insight – work is these people’s religion; they are slaves to the factory.
It is then unclear why we are in a coffee factory and why we find ourselves staring into the face of a girl in a Hello Kitty shirt. Fortunately, she is smiling – the first character we have seen to do so! Why is she so happy? We will never know. She stares at us and after a few seconds, two workers walk in front of her and start cutting up fabric. A car alarm goes off. Someone smokes a cigarette. The workers have outfits that match the scenery. They wear shirts with vertical stripes that evoke the rows of metal pipes that slouch against the walls. Again and again we hear that same metaphorical cry – the workers have been dehumanized! They have themselves become machines!
The end of the film is slightly more interesting because suddenly the laconic workers become incredibly animated. One of them tells a fable about a man who has been taught to work hard his whole life. Then he goes to work for a notorious crook who never pays anyone, but he outsmarts the crook and gets paid by having a scorpion attack the crook. For me, this fable was a bit of a non sequitur, but make of it what you will. After this, the characters lie on the floor of the factory. They face away from eachother and converse in halting sentences. Their discussion yields the following lessons: the upside of working in the factory is that you are too busy to think about things, the downside is that more self-reflective workers may experience depression. “My hands are doing things my brain doesn’t want.” one of them says, totally deadpan, lying on the floor with his back to the camera.
I will not spoil the ending of the film for you, except to say that not much happens. Another child appears, this one armed with a violin. You can probably guess what tune he will play. Joy of Man’s Desiring was an interesting film from a conceptual standpoint – it was interesting to see a film where the setting was foregrounded and the characters treated as mere scenery, but it was far too long given its total lack of plot. Some of the shots were beautiful. I liked the one of a man wrapping up a stack of boxes with Gladwrap and then patting it affectionately. I liked another one of a man dumping a cylindrical sponge on the floor; he cuts open its packaging and it pops into a cube. But these brief images were hardly enough to save the film. Côté’s deployment of symbols (clocks, hymns and windows as prison bars) was heavy-handed and clichéd. Even without a plot, Joy of Man’s Desiring managed to be predictable.