Joy of Man's Desiring (Que ta joie demeure): Berlin Review

The manual labor documentary feels too much like hard work.

Quebecois director Denis Cote weaves a poetic but insubstantial docu-drama patchwork from the lives of factory workers.

BERLIN - Mighty factory machines boom and clank a percussive industrial symphony that runs through this austere Canadian quasi-documentary, which has its world premiere today in the Forum section of the Berlin film festival. Shot in a series of heavily automated workspaces, Joy of Man's Desiring touches on questions of alienation and despair in the workplace, but offers no clear insights and reaches no firm conclusions.

Quebecois director Denis Côté won a Silver Bear in last year's Berlinale for his offbeat comic thriller Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, but the formal rigor on display here feels more akin to the director's unorthodox animal-watching documentary Bestiaire, a left-field Sundance and Berlin favourite in 2012. Sadly, Joy of Man's Desiring lacks the same kind of inspired premise and clarity of purpose. Playing more like a sketchbook of semi-connected ideas than a coherent film, its target audience will likely be limited to the festival circuit.

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The film's non-fiction segments are lightly peppered with dramatic vignettes and poetic touches, including a stern opening monologue delivered straight to camera by an unnamed woman (Emilie Sigouin). "Be polite, respectful, honest," she warns the viewer, "or I'll destroy you." After this, a full 45 minutes of observational documentary elapses before Côté brings the woman back during a series of scrappy scripted scenes in which various workers discuss the depressing drudgery of their jobs, and work in general. 

Moving between different industrial spaces, Côté's method mostly consists of artfully composed static shots and slow zooms into heavy machinery. These scenes have a stark, vaguely menacing beauty. They are intercut with still-life studies of machinists and carpenters, laundry workers and food packagers. Some are caught in fragmentary conversation, others in sullen and wordless poses. Joy of Man's Desiring constantly hints at interesting themes - like the psychology of manual labor in a mechanised age, or the broad cultural mix of Francophone immigrants among Quebecois factory workers - but never develops them with sufficient depth. Rich subject, poor delivery.

Production company: Meta Films
Producer: Sylvain Corbeil, Nancy Grant
Cast: Emilie Sigouin, Guillaume Tremblay, Hamidou Savadogo, Cassandre Emmanuel
Director: Denis Côté
Writer: Denis Côté
Cinematographer: Jessica Lee-Gagné
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Sales company: Films Boutique, Berlin
No rating, 70 minutes