Denis Côté’s ‘Bestiaire’ is a contemplative portrait of wildlife in captivity

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Bestiaire

Directed by Denis Côté’s

Screenplay by Denis Côté’s

2012, Canada

Denis Côté is Quebec cinema’s king of art-house filmmaking. Since his debut feature Les états Nordiques was released in 2005, Côté has, in a very short amount of time, climbed the ranks of the Quebec film scene and has already become one of the most important contemporary directors of Quebec cinema. To say that Côté’s films are accessible would be somewhat of a lie. His long and still camera shots will often test his audience’s patience and his narrative experimentations blurring the lines between fiction films and documentaries can seem very odd to anyone who is not familiar with his work. Yet these, somewhat alienating, aspects of his films are also what make him a very fascinating and intriguing filmmaker.

Denis Côté’s latest film opens on a series of close up shots of people’s faces, their gaze directed off screen. As the shots widen and multiply we are slowly able to construct the scene happening before us. An art class, a group of painters, students perhaps, gathered around a stuffed deer, each painting their own portrait of this enigmatic, statuesque creature. This scene, although interesting in its own way, also sets up the entire rest of the film.

“What makes Bestiaire different from his other movies however is that, unlike with people, Côté has no control over these animals or how they will react to him and his camera…

As the title suggests the film is structured as a sort of visual bestiary. Shot during the winter at the Parc Safari zoo on the outskirts of Montreal, the film mostly consists of long immobile shots of a variety of wild animals, from bison and hyenas to tigers and bears, all going about their days. Côté’s interest in space and the way we navigate our environment is ever-present here. What makes Bestiaire different from his other movies however is that, unlike with people, Côté has no control over these animals or how they will react to him and his camera. He simply observes as the animals travel through the various picture frames he sets-up, occasionally strolling out of frame, walking back in, they react to each other and occasionally to the camera.

There is something magnificent about seeing these animals completely out of their element; African rhinos walking across icy terrain, excited Zebras trapped in a small enclosure, tigers out and about during a snowfall (an image that appeared in the director’s previous film Curling; perhaps a creative nod to himself?).

Some might be tempted to use terms like “tone poem” or “mood piece” in order to describe the film, yet the opening scene gives us a more proper term for what Côté is attempting. He, like the artists in the opening scene, is drawing a portrait, his own depiction of these animals and the world that surrounds them. The inclusion of very methodical human subjects in some of the later parts of the film, whose roles I’d rather not spoil, creates a very interesting contrast with the disorderly movements of the animals.

“At a mere 72 minute runtime and shot on a high-end HD camera this is probably one of Côté’s most accessible films…”

Anyone looking for an Alistair Fothergill-style Discovery Channel special is out of luck. There are no swooping helicopter shots of an African savannah here, nor is there a Richard Attenborough voice-over to tell us what is happening. This is a documentary in its rawest form, as an observational document. There is no soundtrack or extra-diegetic music, as the sound of clanging cages and animal cries are sometimes the only elements orienting us in some of the film’s empty frames. The images here are at some times abstract and at others quite beautiful.

At a mere 72 minute runtime and shot on a high-end HD camera this is probably one of Côté’s most accessible films. The tableau he paints leaves a lot of room for interpretation, the way he portrays the interaction between people and animals, between animals and their environment is sure to spurn discussion. We observe the beasts and they observe us; we delve into their world and they, as Werner Herzog might put it, stare into our souls.

Alex Moffatt

1 Comment
  1. Edgar Chaput says

    To me, one of the most interesting things was just seeing wild animals from a completely continent behave when in close quarters captivity, in the winter no less.

    There were some really weird and amazing shots late in the film when Parc Safari is open to visitors. Côté captures two or three priceless moments where the frame has some humans in the background and animals in the foreground and the animals look like they don’t give two s**** about the people passing by (I’m pretty sure there’s a shot of a lion just sleeping around).

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