Denis Côté is a young Canadian filmmaker who has burst onto the international film scene with a group of challenging and innovative movies in the past few years. Born 16 November, 1973 in New Brunswick, Canada, Côté began his career with a group of short films, and made his first feature in 2005, Drifting States (Les états Nordiques), which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.
Since then, Côté has worked a number of commercial and/or personal projects, most notably Curling (2010), a father/daughter family drama that was exceptionally well received by audiences and critics alike; Bestiare (2012), a “docufiction” – that’s my own term – film centering on the animals who populate a tourist destination zoo in Canada; Vic+Flo Saw A Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours, 2013), a harrowing tale of two women trying to make it on the outside after a stint in prison, and how the world conspires against them to make redemption – at least in life – almost impossible. Vic+Flo Saw A Bear was probably Côté’s most successful film to date, and was screened at more than 90 festivals around the world.
Most recently, Côté completed the superb Joy of Man’s Desiring (aka Que ta joie demeure, 2014), which documents, after a fashion, daily life on the factory floor, as workers methodically partner with their machines to create the staples of daily existence. In all these projects, Côté offers his own unique take on concepts of narrative in his fiction films, and reportage in his documentaries, to create a series of films that are at once open-ended, mysterious, and subtly disturbing.
As of this writing, Joy of Man’s Desiring is only available on Vimeo, distributed by EyeSteelFilm. After seeing the film two or three times, I was so impressed with Côté’s audacious mixture of real events and lightly staged fictional sequences to create an entirely alternate reality that I contacted him, and asked if he would discuss the film with me; he agreed, and this interview was conducted on 4 April, 2015.
I’d like to talk with you about your most recent film, the fictionalised documentary Joy of Man’s Desiring, which for me is one of the most stunning explorations of daily factory life I’ve ever seen. So, my first question is if you’ve ever seen Godard’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1970), the only other film to my knowledge that tries to tackle the workplace in this fashion, although, in my opinion, it overloads the soundtrack with Marxist slogans and the usual Godardian intercut titles – yet the sequence on the car assembly line is really powerful. Have you seen it, and was it an influence?
I was a film critic for a decade while making short films. I have seen an enormous number of art films. When you are young, you get easily confused and overwhelmed by so many influences and desires to pay homage or copy your favourite filmmakers. But being the age I am today, having more experience and a stronger personality, I can definitely see I am not corrupted by direct influences anymore. It’s a bit of a cliché to think that filmmakers are strongly conscious about references of any sort. So, to answer your question, I am not familiar with British Sounds, but I will do my homework.
Joy of Man’s Desiring deals with blue-collar work, and with the machines that seem to dominate, and define the workplace. Indeed, the film begins with a series of trance inducing zooms in on machines that seem to rule the entire work environment. Were you introducing them as the controlling personalities?
Not being familiar with those environments, I decided to start the film with the most spectacular and fascinating point of entry: the machines and their primitive sounds. I felt the need to look at things like a four year-old would. For the first three minutes I let myself, and the viewer be amazed by the power, strength and perfection of those machines. I wanted to put the audience in a hypnotic mode right away.
As you said in another interview, you were struck by “the terrifying idea that we all have to work and eventually find serenity, rest, a sense of accomplishment.” While it’s true enough that we all – or most of us – have to work, do you think that everyone finds “serenity, rest, [and] a sense of accomplishment”? For most people in factory jobs, it seems like a continual struggle just to keep up with the machine.
I do think we can find a personal sense of realisation and/or accomplishment in any type of work. It’s really easy to think that machines are evil and kill human feelings, free will and ambition. I had those preconceptions myself before entering those environments, but you would be surprised to know how many people told me they consciously look for a repetitive job all day long. They told me those are the best jobs, because you don’t have to think all day long. Nighttime is for family matters and problems! Who am I to judge such thinking? I knew my film would not be frontally political, activist or judgmental and had to be more of a hypnotic journey.
There’s a really sinister element about the machines – we’re introduced to them in the beginning of the film, as I noted, but one of the first things I was struck by was their ability to kill or seriously injure a worker, and yet they are integral part of the workplace. How did you deal with sense of threat?
From a distance, it’s easy to think those are dangerous environments. I had the same feeling but once you enter that world, it has its logic, its safety, it’s not a daily concern. It’s not “terrible”. And again, I never felt the need to address that concern. The film is so open that it’s great if those thoughts enter the viewer’s mind.
You’ve referred to Joy of Man’s Desiring as a “sound image experiment”, and for many, it’s seen as a smaller work, but I have to disagree. As much as I admire your fictional narrative Vic+Flo Saw a Bear (2013), for example, it seems to me that as in Bestiare (2012), a similarly meditational film about the daily lives of animals in the Parc Safari zoo in Quebec, in Joy of Man’s Desiring you’re delving much more deeply into the human condition than fiction might allow – leaving even more “work” for the viewer to do with the finished film, which I appreciate. Do you agree?
Absolutely. Of course, there are no such things as “small” and “bigger” films, but the film industry is the industry, and people are people: an experimental film like Joy of Man’s Desiring, made for $30,000 CN with three collaborators is a small film, and a $2.3 million CN narrative film like Vic+Flo with professional actors is a real film with commercial concerns. There’s a notion of “having to perform” with the bigger films and I like that feeling; the preparation, the impression that you are making something big, and you earn a living and you tell a story. But obviously I feel more alive, free and original when I make films like Bestiaire and Joy of Man’s Desiring, even though it’s easier to attack those as being transitional films made for fun. I need both types of experiences, and I don’t care about the condescension.
How did you arrive at the mixture of reportage and lightly fictionalised sequences in making the film; it starts out as a seeming documentary, but even with these brief sequences, which make the film more transcendent and experiential, it still retains the air of an actuality. What was your aim in mixing these staged sequences with the actual footage shot on the factory floor?
That is the big question, I guess. I am obsessed with mixing genres, creating new clashes between forms, and new recipes for narration. I feel there’s no way I can make a straight documentary using conventional filmic language. I also felt that there’s been so many films made about work that I had to find some original angle, some new way to approach the material. I knew I would start with a fictional scene so the viewer feels that anything can happen, so to speak. That’s followed by a long observational, pure documentary segment, which is then slowly contaminated – if that’s the right word – with simple fictionalised, distanciated comments, euphemisms and cliché dialogues we use when we talk about work. That was my recipe. I know it’s not perfect. I’m still working on this, obviously.
The workers talk about the “absurdity of a lifetime working” – can you elaborate on that – as in the recent dance hit “eat, sleep, rave, repeat”, which might well be rephrased “eat, sleep, work, repeat” to the point where the person becomes, in a sense, an extension of the machine, and less of an individual?
The answer is in your question of course. Absurdity is the word. When you really think about it, we work (any kind) to find peace at the end of the day/life. It is not that dramatic. It’s an organisation of time that humanity has slowly (maybe unconsciously) created. It can be fulfilling, frustrating, debilitating, or gratifying, but there’s no way I will make one of those social activist documentaries looking for a culprit or an evil boss/evil corporation/evil government. I was looking for a workspace that is cinematically spectacular (sound/image), so it was natural for us to go into these giant noisy industrial shops. To be honest, my plan was also to film a lawyer at work, a secretary at work, but there is no strong cinematic potential to those fields of work. In the end, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a very free, simple and open reflection on the blue-collar workplace, and the social comment hidden inside it is intentionally elliptical. Films that are open like this are not made on a regular basis. There are usually good and bad guys, which I wanted to avoid entirely.
You said that you wanted to avoid demonising the bosses in the film, and indeed, there’s very little supervision, and very little “judgment” passed on the participants who appear in the film. Did you feel that during the shooting you were becoming another worker, albeit transient, on the factory floor?
Absolutely. I was completely intrigued by what I was filming. The workers were curious about our job as well, not having a script, filming things they think are boring. I will never say I am familiar with those environments. I had to film with a curious and fascinated eye. That’s what we did.
The lighting throughout the film is absolutely gorgeous, using natural light through windows, and when the workers go on break outside for a few minutes, and the entire film seems suffused with a sense of almost religious, or mystical devotion – as the title, taken from the Bach composition, clearly indicates. Do you see work as some sort of devotional exercise, even if for most people it’s involuntary?
There’s definitely a sense of devotion in these places, and you can only see it if you’re unfamiliar with the environments. There are also a lot of strange unconscious rituals. People have rituals with their machines (for instance, I was told some workers pray before starting their machine, so we recreated that). They eat in a certain exact place in the cafeteria; Algerians stay with Algerians, Poles with Poles. When you really look at it without any need to make a social documentary, you see rites, unconscious ceremonies, grace and solemnity. If you’re only looking for good guys, bad guys, statistics, facts, and down to earth realities, you won’t be sensitive to those things.
Could you talk about the soundscape in the film? Whereas Godard in British Sounds kept the images simple, almost reductive and absolutely utilitarian, and then overloaded the soundtrack with numerous layers of overlapping sound, you do the same thing to an extent, using simple, clean images, but much more subtly mixing natural sounds from various locations and settings to create something that seems “real” or linked to the image, but is actually a construct. Could you talk about how you go about that?
The film is a big lie, and you won’t catch me using the word documentary often. I am not a fan of social realism, and I like to be playful with the so-called realities I am filming. A lot of people will disagree with me, but in my opinion, a film is made by someone with a personality, and that personality has to be stronger than reality. It can even be stronger that the people’s destinies you are filming. Joy of Man’s Desiring is not a humanist documentary. It’s a re-appropriation of reality by someone who wants to impose his own will on the sounds and images he records. Therefore, the work on sound is primordial. I worked with the same sound engineer for my last seven films, so he had carte blanche with this. He could exaggerate, delete or transform sounds, because we owe nothing to reality. Maximum expressivity was our guiding principle. For example, I’d say 65% of the sound in Bestiaire had nothing to do with natural sounds.
You’ve said that Joy of Man’s Desiring will probably only be seen by “film geeks”, but without a DVD or theatrical release – it’s only in streaming or downloads on Vimeo, which is a specialist platform for artists, isn’t that a self-fulfilling prophecy?
By film geeks, I meant it wouldn’t be taken too seriously by documentary festivals who thrive on activist cinema, or people who will accuse me of not having a strong point of view or editorial stance about what I’m filming; or not give the real workers to have an opportunity to talk on camera. So what’s left? People who are into film as language. As we all know, those cinephiles are not the norm anymore. Joy of Man’s Desiring was released theatrically here in Canada, in France, and was screened at close to 50 festivals, so I am not complaining at all.
Joy of Man’s Desiring got a limited theatrical release in New York City, and a rather dismissive notice in the New York Times, calling the film nothing more than a “sketch” at one point, which strikes me as missing the point. This is really a detailed examination of physical labour in a factory setting, and the many humanist, metaphysical, and even spiritual aspects of “doing work” – would you comment on this?
I feel really comfortable with people seeing Joy of Man’s Desiring as a “sketch,” a “thing,” a “whim,” an “exercise” or any other condescending term. I don’t want to play fake humility here, but I know it’s not entertaining cinema. I know it’s not a definitive study on work, class wars or whatever. We just don’t live in a period in which a film like Joy of Man’s Desiring can make huge waves. After eight feature films, I just think people can take a new Denis Côté film and see traces of my signature in it. Of course, I am happy when a good film critic or a film scholar will see some merits in it, but I am also very down to earth, and see that regular people are not excited by the perspective of watching a fixed shot of an Ethiopian immigrant assembling furniture for a minute. Frustration is not an option for most viewers.
Once upon a time, when everything had to open in a film theatre to make its money back, Joy of Man’s Desiring would probably have played the so-called “arthouse circuit” in the States, and in Europe – do you think that a release on a platform like Vimeo, without the “real estate” of a theatrical release, works against the reception of the film.
Again, Joy of Man’s Desiring opened at the Berlin Film Festival, was released theatrically here, in France, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. It’s a festival item. It’s the times we live in. I accept the state of things. Let’s not forget we can also make these essay films with Council for the Arts’ help in the financial area, which American people tend to forget because it’s not their reality. The notion of box-office performance, of having to recoup your investment or whatever commercial motivations a movie might typically have, are sometimes a very secondary reality for filmmakers with this kind of support.
You’ve said that when you were working on the film, there were times when you told yourself “nobody’s going to want to watch this thing.” And yet the hypnotic effect of the film drew me right in, along with the cool, contemplative camerawork, the seemingly ambient but nevertheless slightly menacing and unrelenting sound of the machines, and it seems to me one of your most accessible works. Your thoughts on this?
If you are conscious that you are creating an unfashionable object, you will probably add and craft more and more cinematic aspects and push the envelope, at least to please yourself and your collaborators. It’s a defense mechanism to say that “nobody will want to see it” – indeed, it’s a cliché I happily use to protect myself!
As you say, “it’s the kind of liberated film that keeps me going, keeps me creative.” You look, in a sense, for a structure that arises out of the place you’re documenting, and also participating in. In a sense, the “sets” are already built, and you arrive, and start to create on them, using light, sound, camera compositions, and then a sense of mystic narrative. So it’s somewhat “half done” so to say, for you – would you agree?
Totally. If you give ten filmmakers a zoo, a grocery store, a shop, a scrapyard or a shooting range, most of them will just film the place for what it is, and never feel comfortable lying about those sacrosanct realities, or transforming them into a cinematic entity. Personally, you give me such a place, and since I have no budget to transform it, the first question I ask myself is “is there a way to present this well-known environment in a way we’ve never seen before?”
This seems to me to a much more complex task than shaping a scripted narrative – you have to find the narrative here; it isn’t laid out on paper for you. Would you agree, then, in a sense, a project such as Bestiare or Joy of Man’s Desiring is perhaps even more ambitious, more of a challenge than a scripted work?
It’s very hard to answer yes, because Bestiare and Joy of Man’s Desiring were shot in a very instinctive way without much preparation, in eight days, with three collaborators. It’s a completely different mindset. Producing a $2 million film with a crew of 30, professional actors, rules of the industry, a written, indeed re-re-re-re-written supervised script is the most frustrating experience imaginable, but also the most rewarding. The eight-day-zero-budget shoots are made with a clear recipe, with less stress and yes, much more freedom. It would be unfair to say they are more challenging.
You’re now in pre-production on a new film, which you will shortly be shooting; could you tell me a little bit about that? What sort of concerns do you hope to address in this film, and is it, as I assume, a fiction piece on a larger scale?
It’s on the same scale as Vic+Flo. It’s the story of a very rich man confronted to the mysterious depression of his wife. It’s a film about pride and success. I sometimes feel it addresses similar concerns as in my film Curling. We always make the same film, somehow.
Do you intend to keep going back and forth between projects like Joy and Bestiare and more “commercial” works – doing one for audiences, and then one for yourself, so to speak, to recharge your batteries?
Always. Hopefully. After Joy of Man’s Desiring, I made two short films. I am not a careerist. I don’t see my trajectory as a desperate race for achievements or going towards any sort of summit (Hollywood, huge budgets, Europe).
As a Canadian film artist, and someone who is working resolutely on projects over which you have almost complete control, what are your thoughts on the Hollywood film factory and its current reliance on franchises, remakes, action films, and comic book movies? Do these films have any value for you?
I respect, value and understand film’s meant for global consumption, as a mean to forget about daily frustrations, as escapism. When I was a film critic, I had to watch everything, to shape and share an opinion, to understand the currents and the period we were living in, and just keep myself informed. But now my escapism is in real life. I get terribly entertained by human beings, their rituals, and their fears. I don’t have the need for film entertainment to “get away” from reality. I’ve attained a little reputation, so I can do my thing without trying to impress anyone, or scream to a crowd that I’ve seen Fast and Furious 7. I want to know what’s going on in the industry, and the world I live in, but I don’t watch those films. They are not even guilty pleasures.
I’ll certainly agree with that! What do you see as the state of film production and distribution within the next decade? Do you see everything moving on line to a streaming platform, or do you think that theatrical exhibition will continue to be a viable alternative?
I can see now that most people under 35 years of age are comfortable watching films through Netflix, streaming films at home on big flat screens. I will never be rigorous or melancholic about the large screen format or 35mm film. I am not nostalgic in any aspect of my life, and one of my worst fears is to become an old fart, judging the tastes or movie going experience of younger generations. A badly managed or a no-vision theatre can close tomorrow; I don’t care. I totally understand people not feeling comfortable paying $14 to go watch a film in an old shopping mall. It’s 2015, and I’m not a preacher, yelling “find ideas, people!” You have to teach cinema in an original way, without prejudice. Make a 20 year-old interested in Pier Paolo Pasolini or Robert Bresson, and don’t judge him because he just watched Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthasar (1966) on his iPhone. At 41 years old, I grew up watching films in the local cinémathèque, and I still need to be a prisoner of a room with a big screen to be fully interested. But my experience is just mine. It’s not the experience of the new world.
Finally, what are your thoughts about the aesthetic of the moving image in the digital era? Would you prefer that your films be seen on a large screen, where certainly they have more impact, especially in the case of Joy, or are you “platform agnostic”, and feel that all methods of distribution are of use?
The situation won’t change for filmmakers: you have to make your film for the big screen first, with the best sound editing, mix, colour correction, framing and effective expressionist language. Once that is done professionally, you have no control on how people appreciate your work, or the conditions in which they watch it. I love watching an Edvard Munch painting I discover through Google Image. Nobody can steal that emotion from me. Maybe later I’ll see the original in a museum. In the meantime, I love that Google Image version – why not?
Note: In working on this interview, I am deeply indebted to the work of film scholar and theorist Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. I first became acquainted with Côté’s work when Foster brought it to my attention, and screened a group of Côté’s films for me, which I viewed with rapt attention. Indeed, without Foster’s intervention, I might have missed Côté’s remarkable films entirely. Thus, I dedicate this interview to her with real gratitude; it would not have been possible without her help and guidance.