It is not the titular Bach cantata, heard only fleetingly, but the thrumming of factory equipment that drives Quebecois helmer Denis Cote’s austere contemplation of the bizarre symbiosis of humans and machines at work. This fiercely abstract piece neither celebrates the value of labor nor denounces it as dehumanizing exploitation: Static, strikingly composed documentary stretches are interspersed with actors playing workers who voice a variety of complaints, appreciations and parables that deliberately, even pointedly, fail to encompass the sense of being there amid the unfolding spectacle. Definitely not for the narrative-minded, “Joy of Man’s Desiring” will please if not swell the ranks of Cote admirers.
Jessica Lee Gagne’s camera stays locked on assorted hammering behemoths, then slowly moves in closer, culminating with a shot of a contraption that looks like nothing so much as a giant mechanized cocktail shaker. Nothing seems even remotely state-of-the-art about these clumsy, clunky manufacturing apparatuses — indeed, they look positively antique. When people are included in the frame, they are generally found alone with a machine in a workshop corner; any sense of the fast-moving assembly line that swallowed up Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” is nowhere in evidence. Rather, in their own metalworking or woodworking nooks, workers of varied ethnicities repetitively sort, assemble or package to their own rhythms.
In a particularly surreal tableau, sheets of metal suspended at eye level pass with dreamlike slowness while men in full-body white-nylon protective gear spray-powder them black, then air-gun each other’s now-blackened coveralls white again. Even the commercial laundry, which might conform to a more collective assembly-line template, is not without its bizarre touches, as workers process the very kind of sky-blue uniforms they’re currently wearing, while huge yellow fabric bags pass overhead. Sometimes workers (or, in one case, a little girl in a bright pink Hello Kitty T-shirt) are starkly posed, unmoving, next to machinery.
In counterpoint to this non-judgmental visual discourse, Cote includes pauses where actors playing workers declaim various reactions to their designated tasks. As in the director’s previous documentaries “Carcasses” and “Bestiaire,” these fictional elements disturb the illusion of self-contained neutrality. Indeed, the entire film is kicked off by a woman (Emilie Sigouin) looking over her shoulder at the viewer as she delivers a long, confidential monologue promising secret delights if shs e’ll treated and total destruction if not. Simultaneously sexual and symbolic (the woman is possibly spelling out an intimate relationship between man and machine), this suggestively charged intro challenges the impartiality of what follows — without, however, imposing any given meaning on it.
These scripted interstices increase markedly toward the end. A tall black actor (Ted Pluviose) playing a depressed worker complains that his hands perform actions that his brain despises. Contrarily, a rotund white co-worker (Olivier Aubin) welcomes mindless routines that prevent thought, reveling in its absence. “We’re different,” they conclude. Later, the same depressed worker’s disaffection is pitted against the despair of a woman (Cassandre Emmanuel) who can’t find a job and thus lacks energy, courage and the means to feed her child. And a man (Guillaume Tremblay) ambiguously repeats, in Godardian singsong, a seemingly self-contradictory phrase: “Work never killed anyone. Why take the risk?”