BY Tom Newth in Interviews | 29 SEP 14

A Three-Level Monster

Tom Newth interviews Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté about documentary cinema and his latest film 'Que ta joie demeure' (Joy of Man's Desiring)

BY Tom Newth in Interviews | 29 SEP 14

Que ta joie demeure (Joy of Man's Desiring), (2014)

Heads were scratched, a couple of years ago, over what to make of Denis Côté’s semi/non-documentary Bestiaire (2012). The bulk of the film was concerned with looking at animals in an off-season Quebec safari park, clattering around their stalls, or simply standing and staring. No context was offered, no invitation to identify with the animals or, heaven forbid, anthropomorphise; instead, Côté’s project was to find a fresh way of looking at what conventionally might be treated as either a ‘cute’ subject, or one on which to hang tired bugbears about zoos, and man’s relationship to animals in general. The result was strange and hypnotic, and the fact that it is so hard to pin down, both in its effect, and what kind of a film it actually is, suggested that there was interesting further work to be done along these lines.

With the disarming narrative of Vic + Flo ont vu un ours (2013) coming in between, Côté has returned to the practice of Bestiaire for his latest film, Que ta joie demeure (Joy Of Man’s Desiring, 2014). The subject this time is a sliver of the workforce, operating large Dr. Seuss-like machines in a series of factories (the different locations are never specifically delineated, beyond implication by the various products turned out – several critics assume it is one massive plant, producing mattresses, cutting metal, and packaging coffee). The approach is, initially, rigorously hands-off; was this intended therefore as an extension of Bestiaire?

Bestiaire (2012)

‘The various audiences for Bestiaire wanted to talk mainly about the animals, whereas my starting point had been an obsession with looking and observing. I felt therefore that some abstract questions had been left unanswered, so I decided to look at something that is less obviously appealing than animals: the act of working. This is why in the end the films look like some sort of diptych. I think that with every new film, I try to find ways to approach and twist the realities I’m filming. I am also looking for new ways to approach people who don’t share much with my reality. I like those human adventures. A lot of documentary filmmakers are content with finding a reality and filming it for what it is. This is not enough for me. I find a reality, and I twist it to make it my own. You can’t put a label on a hybrid object like Que ta joie demeure. It’s not really an account of what factory work is; it’s not a reflection on life; it’s staged and real at the same time. It doesn’t fit any reality. It’s mine. It’s very artificial, and it’s far away from any social doc we usually see. At least, I hope so. So, just as Bestiaire is not really a film about animals, neither is Que ta joie demeure really a film about workers – such a film would have demanded things like interviews, or a more obviously humanist approach. As in Bestiaire, the intention was more cerebral, abstract. I’m interested in the act of working, the idea of work; thus one must make austere choices, leading to an abstract result. Both films are dehumanized, or de-animalized – some people will obviously say that I missed an occasion of making warmer films but I disagree.’

Que ta joie demeure (Joy of Man's Desiring), (2014)

Certainly there is little joy present in Joy Of Man’s Desiring, but neither is there an exaggerated sense of gloom, or even monotony – we observe the strict regularity of the machines and their operation, and listen to the clanging symphony of rhythms they produce, but measured editing denies the easy effects of hypnotism. However, whilst the similarly studied avoidance of easy anthropomorphism in Bestiaire creates for the animals a certain self-contained dignity, the humans here are (initially) treated in a similar manner, at the risk of casting them simply as automated extensions of the machines they operate. Côté’s strategy to combat this diverges from that of Bestiaire, using actors instead of filming real workers, and gradually introducing scripted scenes and careful staging:

‘I felt that Bestiaire did what it had to do, and that there was no point in making the same film in another environment. My observational style had to go somewhere else. There is observation in Que ta joie demeure, but also some humour, and I question some clichés about life. The last “act” of the film is filled with these things: the sorts of banal ways in which we discuss our work (being depressed, being tired, the need to change job). I thought the film needed to morph from being simply observational, to a somehow twisted narrative, so the dialogues were written. Some things in the film are accidental, some are staged. Hopefully the audience is trying to guess.’

Filmmaker Denis Côté

Here is where the exaggeration comes in – art, if you will – prompting us to consider the implications of complaining about the work one continues to do, for a living wage, to support a child; to state blithely that one does indeed feel concern for the business as a whole, for the management, which in this environment at least, seems a thousand miles away; to be depressed about this low-level monotony when the option is… what? Côté’s title is just as exaggerated in the opposite direction:

‘The Bach sonata is called Jesu, Que ma joie demeure. I twisted this sort of very poetic title (we would never normally use such an elegant expression in French) into something a little misleading, but no less poetic in the end. I see the title as some sort of word of encouragement to the worker. The film is not supposed to be depressive or bleak; it’s not supposed to be a condemnation or an anti-capitalist manifesto. It is not a social film with a message. Yet work is undeniably at the center of our lives. Sometimes it’s rewarding, sometimes it’s debilitating, sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it hurts. The film is one long prayer to the worker, saying ‘keep up, my friend’. I think that those people who think the film is depressing or dark are those who are inclined to make an unthinking, instinctive judgment about the type of work we see in the film.’

It should be noted that the type of work we do see is particularly restricted in scope. Apart from the various factory workers at their machines, we see occasionally a woodshop, the only hint of anything like artisanal work (although the woodworker is engaged mostly in the banalities of melamine-trimming). Certainly the scope of the film is so confined to factory interiors that we wonder about the differences in outlook and environment that might have been illustrated by the manual work of, say, fruit pickers, either mechanised or even by hand, and whether or not the mostly dour outlook of the characters here presented is not linked directly to their enclosed, airless environment.

‘At first I wanted to film all kinds of works and activities, but at some point, you need to find an aesthetic focus. Filming a lawyer or a receptionist would potentially not have given me very much, cinematically speaking. I went for industrial environments where the body is explicitly solicited; where repetition becomes poetic; where machines are noisy and expressive. Then I imagined interiors only. Going out becomes a goal or a dream. There’s certainly something out there – liberty? fun? danger? – but the film denies that ‘outside’ world.’

In fact, this is like any other Côté film, disguised as a film about work and workers: its real focus is, once again, a small community of people and their restricted, out-of-the-way environment. That we are being privileged – Côté, too – with a glimpse into that world, is indicated by the opening monologue. A female worker speaks over her shoulder to an unseen listener who, judging by the words addressed, may be a new colleague; yet the tone is intimate, almost as one would address a lover. That she stresses the need for trust, and that one may find good things here in this place, remind us too that her words are also directed of course to the film-maker behind the camera and, by extension, to the viewer-visitor.

‘I like the opening. It sets the tone, and at the same time the viewer is completely at a loss. It has that “what am I going to watch” edge, I think. [Actress Emilie Sigouin] is addressing a co-worker as if she were some sort of boss. She also embodies the idea of talking smoothly to workers, keeping them happy, promising things. But she is “the film” itself as well, talking to the audience, saying something like “if you’re open-minded, I’ll bring you somewhere special.” Even if we don’t completely get it, the film introduces itself as a three-level monster.’

Carcasses (2009)

One of the pleasures of Côté’s oeuvre is the way his films wriggle out from easy categorisation, existing simultaneously on these different planes. The documentary element has always been present, particularly in the form of exploring sequestered communities – the curious, careful gaze from a distance seems to catch something singular and mysterious beneath the surface of these tucked-away realities. Yet it was with Carcasses (2009) that Côté really started to push his way towards a new form, rupturing the observational (the solitary life of a junkyard guardian) with unexpected narrative intrusions. It was also around this time that he started to concentrate more on framing, locking down the previously jittery camera to create the increasingly precise tableaux (most beautifully in the Josée Deshaies-shot Curling, 2010) that in much of Que ta joie demeure achieve a science-fictional strangeness in their choice of detail.

‘Mini DV was the trend around 2004-2005, and the Dogme films were still influencing a significant number of new filmmakers. There was this obvious handheld camerawork choice going on. At some point I thought, there’s no way the films are more dynamic or true just because the camera has a nervous style. So I slowly changed. I like the tableau-style approach. The viewer has to enter a very still shot that is not telling him on what he should focus. He must do the job. I like an active audience. A moving camera usually guides your eye, your emotion, your conscience. I think that with Carcasses, Bestiaire and Que ta joie demeure I found what I was looking for, meaning observing a reality and making it my own, using a fixed frontal camera in the vein of directors like Ulrich Seidl or Nikolaus Geyrhalter. You look at something in a very dry and static way. You don’t want to editorialize, or make a social comment about what you film, and in the end, the audience is going to give you their own reading; the film takes its own revenge on you by “saying things” that were not consciously in your head (the bleak colors and the cages of Bestiaire are “talking” in this way, as is the repetitive nature of manual work in Que ta joie demeure and so on). That said, for all their similarities, these films certainly do not form a coherent trilogy, and I don’t feel the urge to make another one. But as far as documentaries, loosely-speaking, are concerned, I also like to watch those impossible, hybrid films. I find them fragile and beautiful in their weaknesses. I was totally hypnotized by Two Years at Sea by Ben Rivers (2011). It was unconscious for sure, but coming directly out from the womb of Carcasses! I also like to follow the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers; of course my style or name have been connected to a film like Leviathan (2012) which I love.’

Curling (2010)

Another pleasure of this work is that, despite superficial similarities to the new observational furrows being ploughed by the HESL filmmakers, Côté is resolutely going his own way, mixing larger narrative productions with smaller, three-man-crew operations like his latest, fearlessly trusting that his audience will look at these objects with the same attention and inquisitiveness as that with which he films. This is due, in part, to his having come of age as exactly that sort of audience-member, whilst simultaneously parlaying his love of cinema into a long stint as a critic with ici magazine. Despite this, however, it is remarkable how little in debt to other filmmakers his work seems to be, how few influences are readily discernible – the cinema of Denis Côté is his own.

‘I briefly studied film and always wanted to be a director. But I was also a grade-A cinephile. Meeting other cinephiles under various circumstances and at various events got me in touch with the worlds and people of radio and newspaper film criticism. I became a film critic by accident, for nearly a decade, until 2005. So of course I carry a long cinephile heritage. I was obsessed with it for a long time, until my third or fourth feature maybe. Then, instead of watching everything just to have an opinion, I started watching only films that could really bring me something. I don’t remember copying a scene from a favorite film or imitating a director’s style. But people know I’ve been a film critic, so they love to say silly things like “oh Elle veut le chaos is in black and white, so it’s an homage to Bela Tarr”. All I’m sure of is that my cinephilia was really sparked by the turn-of-the-century kind of postmodernist masters like Abbas Kiarostami, Jia Zhang-Ke, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Romanian wave, Dogme films, and so on. If you add to that an admiration for very different filmmakers and signatures, like John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dario Argento, Maurice Pialat, and Robert Bresson… it makes quite a cocktail in the end. There are tons of them, yet no clear influences at the same time. Nowadays, I’m just busy with my own shit. I go to festivals and it’s all about me, me, me – interviews, Q&As, and stuff. The cinephile in me is slowly losing the battle, but maybe it’s a good thing for future projects. I don’t overthink everything anymore. My films are made fast and instinctively. I’m not an intellectual. I’m very down to earth and pragmatic in real life. I talk a lot, I contradict myself, and I collect paradoxes. I’m not living the arty poet life. But when I sit down to write a story, it feels like I need introspection, silence, slowness. I need to ‘get serious’. Every film is a therapy, I’d say, but I don’t think about it too much – it’s dangerous.’

Tom Newth is a filmmaker and programmer based in Los Angeles, USA.