Saturday, July 19, 2014

Que ta joie demeure (Joy Of Man's Desiring)

The cinema of Denis Côté is frequently concerned with banality, be it work, or the superficially drab existence of out-of-the-way communities, in the hotel-room cleaning of Tennessee (2005), the watching and waiting of Les lignes ennemies (2010), or the near-standstill slowness of life in rural Quebec in various features. The fascination, however, is in observing, in finding a way of looking that brings out the strange and, potentially, profound undercurrents. And so the off-season zoo of Bestiaire (2010) becomes a mysterious space full of animal parts and unreadable gazes, rather than an urge to anthropomorphism; the battened-down feelings and fears run deep beneath inexpressive surfaces in Curling (2010); and the junkyard of Carcasses (2009) takes on the air of some used-up science fiction setting.

The fact that we frequently have no idea at what kind of machines we are looking in Côté's latest, Que ta joie demeure (literally: "let your joy abide", the – almost – French title of Bach's Jesus bleibet meine Freude) produces a similar effect of slightly alternate reality, from an opening montage of shunting, Seuss-like contraptions and their mechanically musical soundtrack. Soon we see humans engaged in the wordless, repetitive work of operating, although cut briskly enough to avoid the easy allure of hypnosis.

For, ostensibly similar to Bestiare, this is an observational non-documentary look askance at an enclosed, normally unseen environment and its inhabitants. This time, however, Côté offers prompts to interpretation in a more explicit manner. We begin with a scripted prologue of teasing opacity, as a female worker talks over her shoulder in serious tones of the need for trust, how she is not a machine herself, and how her unseen listener may find "good times" if he succeeds "here". Who the listener might be is unclear – a new co-worker, possibly the viewer, although as the intimate tone suggests, perhaps even a lover. And in actual reality, of course, she is talking to the film-maker behind the camera.

She can indeed trust him. The camera style is unobtrusive (and careful in framing as ever), observing not only the work, from large machine shop to mattress factory, woodshop or coffee packers, but also the downtime: quotidian work tales, some stilted ribaldry, the indistinct burble of canteen conversation. We may wonder how much of the talk is strictly observational, however, as opposed to scripted, or indeed how many of these people are actual workers (Quebecois actors may not be easily recognizable on an international level, but some will recall the hangdog face of Olivier Aubin from various other Côté pictures). Around the 45-minute mark, set-ups have begun to take on the discreet air of staging – a rolled-up garage door acts as a raised curtain for the space we see from upstage, later to be the setting of the most theatrical of the film's few monologues. Even the shadow of a narrative emerges: a young woman changes workplace to be given something to do, to feel more fulfilled. Likewise, the downtime conversations increase in portent: a parable about a crooked employer; the question of who desires to work at the same machine for ten years; the floor-workers' attitude to the company as a whole. This in fact is one of the few moments wherein we get a real glimpse of the humanity at work in these inhuman settings but, depending on one's sympathy, it is either universalized or undercut by being repeated verbatim – each of two of the machine workers separately asserts that although they may seem not to care about the company, they do, for "this is half my life".

In fact, there is no real attention paid to the relationship between these bottom-rung workers and their management, a significant part of human experience under any working conditions; furthermore, whilst the effort to stay away from anthropomorphism in Bestiaire ended up suggesting a more intriguing sense of self for the animals, the uninvolved view here has an opposite effect, reducing the workers to repetitive drones and barely-scripted mouthpieces. One teasing semi-exception is a young man, seen usually on his own, repeating mantra-like the Reaganite slogan "hard work never killed anyone. Why take the risk?" We see him finally declaiming from a vantage point above the factory floor (we assume) but have no view, or clue, as to his listeners, nor the significance of his place within this film.

Thus, as the hand of the artist becomes more apparent, the near-mystical effect of framing and measured montage – Bestiaire's success story – starts to cede its power to more discernible manipulation. Some commentators suggest that Côté has fallen fatally between two stools, spoiling the uncanny effect of detached, askew observation, yet conjuring nothing from his more direct interventions. This is not entirely unfounded, but the whole is at last coherent in its gear towards tentative investigation and suggestion. We do notice what is missing, however: where is the workplace camaraderie, and where, indeed, is the joy? One worker is happy he works at his own machine rather than the dull one of the old man in the corner, but this feels like a very restricted and contextual form of happiness. Even the fulfillment that the displaced girl craves cannot help but feel ironic – she seeks "a job that gives me strength and courage", but ends up cleaning a ceiling sign for drinking water. The only thing like joy is found in the final sequence, as a child saws away at his violin, joyful only if one finds this more charming than aurally irksome.

As his career proceeds, Côté is increasingly careful not to lead us by the nose, but his gentle nudging here down various avenues of thought do not send us far. We may wonder about the nature (and the potential for fulfillment) of such manual labor, reliant entirely upon machines, as opposed to the moments of physical finesse like cloth-cutting and melamine-trimming (although here too, both are notably simple operations in traditionally hands-on crafts). Never mind wondering about the workers' lives and sense of self outside of the workplace, we may also wonder about the distinct implications of working exclusively in these artificially-lit, enclosed and metal-crowded spaces, as opposed to outdoor manual labor at a comparable level – the grunt work of construction, or crop-picking, for example. The scope of the film is too narrow to embrace any of these questions, and one cannot help but feel, therefore, that the subject has been exploited somewhat below its full potential. 

d/sc Denis Côté p Denis Côté, Sylvain Corbeil, Nancy Grant ph Jessica Lee Gangé ed Nicolas Roy m J.S. Bach cast Emilie Sigouin, Cassandre Emmanuel, Hamidou Savadogo, Ted Pluviose, Guillaume Tremblay, Olivier Aubin
(2014, Can, 70m)
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