Quebec-based director Denis Côté has a passion for the stationary film camera, a position that makes demands on the filmmaker as far as composition and patience, and carries historical baggage about the traditional framing of painting and photography. With Bestiaire, a film that showed at the Sundance, Berlin, Vancouver and Toronto film festivals, Côté takes a detour from his narrative film efforts to make a more or less straightforward documentary. Set in Parc Safari south of Montreal, it’s a film that looks at animals in a zoo, mostly in muted lighting and, for about two-thirds of the film, without visitors around.
In many cases, the animals are looking back at the camera. The effect is often eerie, uncomfortable and, to underscore the obvious, highly unnatural. A tufted crane pecks at a wooden chair that is set up in its enclosure. A lion bangs against a cage, and the padlock on its gate shudders with each hit. A young gorilla grabs its stuffed toy and retreats into a piece of drain pipe that is its refuge. The analogies to prisons are clear enough, not only from the bars and locks but, in one scene, a quadruple-screen security camera shot of the animals.
Occasionally, the images are aesthetic: A criss-cross of curved water buffalo horns looks like palms raised in prayer; and zebra legs moving frantically back and forth against a wall appear like a hysterical dance. Mostly, the scenes are almost funereally chilly, or surreal in their startling juxtapositions: When the visitors arrive, lions stroll among a line of cars. The images are held long enough to impel contemplation, though not so long as to bore. The question the camera seems to ask is: What are animals to us and what are we to them?
Two sources provide some helpful context. One is Volker Seding, the German-Canadian photographer whose pictures of more than 500 zoos throughout Europe and North America communicate a somewhat more theatrical version of the same pursuit, with the unmistakeable suggestion of totalitarianism in his images of imprisoned animals.
The other source is an essay by art critic and novelist John Berger, titled Why Look at Animals? Intentionally or not, Côté’s film embodies many of Berger’s ideas. For Berger, there has been a rupture with the natural world where man existed in an “unspeaking companionship” with animals, which were the first subjects of art and, for centuries, lived in a dualistic relationship with humans. From being at the centre of our existence through nearly all of our history, animals have become marginalized. Today, Berger wrote, animals in zoos are “the living monument to their own disappearance.”
There are two sequences in Bestiaire where Côté underscores his point with heavy-handed emphasis. One, at the beginning of the film, involves a “still life” drawing class in which the model is a deer that is still but no longer alive. The other a scene where a taxidermist takes a dead bird and proceeds to stuff and mount it in a life-like pose. We can hardly miss the point that the animals in a zoo are exhibits, whose sentient existence is almost beside the point. They’re the tattered originals that may some day be replaced by more attractive holograms or animatronic replicas.