“This is not an anti-zoo film”, says director Denis Côté as he steps on stage after the European premiere of his film Bestiaire. In fact, it’s not an anti-film at all. Bestiaire is a film for the audience, a film about the audience. The full-length documentary is what some would call a challenge – with no dialogue, no commentary, no clear story line. One could even argue that is not a documentary, for, as Côté recently stated in an interview, the only true documentary is captured on surveillance cameras. Côté’s film is a montage of scenes of animals at Park Safari in Quebec, an observation of their daily life in captivity. Long shots that last up to three and a half minutes allow for an observation of routine, repetition, and a lot of laughs. It is surprisingly funny to watch animals moving about – maybe because their habits are so banal. There is no point intellectualising their acts, and possibly we humans don’t do enough of that. It is refreshing to neither analyse nor judge, but to watch and let our simplest reflexes, the ooohs and uuuuhs, run freely. In these scenes lies a fine line that Côté draws with grace. For though it is entertaining to watch the animals moving and eating and hanging, it is also tragic. The scenes live from a loud silence, where natural – and unnatural – sounds are enhanced and exaggerated. On the one hand, there is a silence inherent to the animals’ incapacity to express themselves verbally, and on the other, there is the humans’ incapacity to listen. With minimal use of music, Côte enhances the sound of movement. The movement made by the animals often is a nervous, fitful shuffling and ruffling that reacts to and coexists with the disconcerting, continuous noise made by humans and their machines. In many scenes, we see the animals jerking their heads, ears and eyes at the aggressive, mechanical noises that surround them. Côté chose to film the animals on a steady-cam that can only capture what the animal’s movements allow it to. More often than not, we will observe parts of an animal – the head of an ostrich, the horns of an antelope, the hoofs of a zebra as it runs around skittishly in its stable. There is a certain sense of spontaneity, of freedom that collides with the animals’ routine movements in a state of entrapment.
Aesthetically, the film offers beautiful shots that contrast the cold steel and rigid lines of fences with colourful, round, moving beings. Between the lines and forms, the straight and the curvy, there is this strange intermediate called human. The employees of the zoo go about their daily routine in silence, in what appears sometimes humble and sometimes bored. The visitors stroll around, looking at a lion lazing about, laughing at a monkey hanging onto a rope. They, too, seem aimless and a little lost. They walk about in flipflops, or take pictures of zebras from their car seats. At one point, four humans are slumped on something that resembles an elephant. They grin with glee as the animal trots through the trees. In this laziness there also lies a clash between animals and humans. There is something ugly and voyeuristic in the feeling that the visitors are not observing, but simply staring. In this contrast lies the charm of the film. It is a simple, calm portrait of animals trapped in movement, in routine, in cages, and of their human counterparts on screen and off. The lack of commentary leaves it completely up to the audience to interpret the film in their own way. It is a silent, loud film about the look and the looked-at, about placement and misplacement. Beneath the animals’ desolation we can’t help but notice an eerie sense of threat. That something is wrong, very wrong. Bestiaire is not a tragic, militant film. It does not fight for or against anything. You can see how it can make people laugh. You can see how it can bore people. You can see how it can charm people. But most of all, you don’t have to see. With Bestiaire, Côté offers us the possibility to see whatever we want to see. It is a film about animals, but most of all, it is a film about us.
by Mara Klein