Small in both scope and scale, Denis Côté’s films generally concern the minute operations of enclosed communities, examining both the inner workings of these systems and their innate sensitivity to outside intrusion and influence. From the junkyard netherworld of Carcasses to the remote country hideaway of Curling and the shaky lovers’ sanctuary of Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, the inevitable dissolution of these bubbles supplies the central tension of these stories, while also saddling them with a strong sense of over-determined predictability. The application of these ideas took on a different, deeper focus in Bestiaire, a seemingly straightforward document of zoo animals in their artificial habitats that imagined those environments as spaces for performance, carried out by confined, unwitting actors. Côté pursues a similar performative angle in Joy of Man’s Desiring, which attempts to chronicle the act of labor as both a universal function of life and a spectacle in itself.
In Bestiaire, the initial focus on caged beasts is pulled back to reveal an equivalent fixation on the people observing them, further implicating the film’s viewers as the terminal point of a three-tiered system. Here, footage of the internal machinery of a variety of factories is edited together to establish an integrated arena of work, incorporating staged discussions between coverall-wearing individuals, who are either actual employees or actors emulating them. In Côté’s conception of these linked worlds, there isn’t much of a distinction, with all toil granted equivalent status, the seemingly hermetic space of the factory giving way to a looped continuum of production and use, each unit combining to form both the collective whole of modern society and this filmed record of its imagined inner workings.
The nameless characters (identified only as Worker 1, Worker 2, etc.) repeatedly discuss the importance of work in their lives, and labor ends up depicted as a constituent element of being, granting people structure by allowing them to assume concrete roles within a proscribed system, just as the zoo or the cinema function as spaces for leisure. These ideas are conveyed with low-key subtlety, with much of the footage capturing the rhythmic motion of automated machines, their incessant noise either lulling or maddening, depending on your perspective. The importance of small parts remains prominent throughout, building to the brief appearance of a huge pipe organ, which clarifies and deepens the titular Bach reference, factoring in the link between pure labor and religious transcendence while confirming the film’s view of society as a cooperatively produced patchwork of small aggregate pieces.
As always, Côté’s approach is itself founded on an amalgamation of contrasting methods, the drably mundane glossed up with pictoral elegance, borrowing from the early avant-garde’s fascination with industrial automation, the glacial pacing of modern slow cinema and the dialectical economic analyses of filmmakers like Godard, particularly the similarly set pageantry of Tout va Bien. From all three of these sources comes a fixation on issues of detachment, with his rhetoric-spouting workers divorced from the very essence of their own productive efforts, reduced to babysitters for nearly self-operating machines. Unlike most of Côté’s previous work, in which discrete private spaces are gradually intruded upon, the infringement of mechanization into human domains and craft and handiwork are long since complete; here, the pounding industrial environment the film portrays requires workers as monitoring bodies while pushing them increasingly to its fringes. This leaves Joy of Man’s Desiring as another tri-level chronicle of observation, of viewers watching workers watch over impassive automatons—and the insistent focus on inexorable factory processes, with robots occupying the primary spotlight while anonymous workers get relegated to subordinate roles, seems like the ideal platform for a director whose characters have always felt like didactically manipulated chess pieces.