Denis Côté, DP Vincent Biron, and producer Sylvain Corbeil have created a singular (beast of a) movie with Bestiaire. Offered the chance to shoot at a rather tired safari park in rural Quebec, Côté decided to make an experiment, to find new ways of making images of animals.
First of all, however, he gives us extreme closes ups of art students, bobbing in and out of frame. We see that they are drawing a stuffed springbok. We see parts of the animal, and parts of the drawings.
A similar technique is employed at the zoo. The usually static camera carefully frames the unique but banal dilapidation of the buildings, occasionally with no activity at all, as though nothing had wandered into shot. Must usually, however, the striking compositions contain smaller or larger parts of animals – a horse off-center, with no legs; the tips of an impala’s horns below the cage’s deadbolt. The buffaloes stare down the camera.
Long-held shots allow the animals to remake their compositions in the fixed frame, often to strange or hypnotic effect. It’s winter, and it doesn’t look much fun there, not even for the humans, watched from time to time going about their usual business. Côté does not press the point of imprisonment, but one can’t help but feel sorry for these animals: a couple are even disfigured. They are being taken care of, and indeed the zoo has a good reputation, but the final shot, of a small, lone elephant wandering slowly behind a hillock, bereft of its necessary companionship, cannot but set a seal of sadness on the film.
The gaze of the camera itself is dispassionate, however, allowing the animals to behave as they will, and the shots are arranged (mostly) to avoid evocation of any particular sentiment. The human crowds and cars that come in the summer are shot in the same detached way. The tone is one of openness, encouraging the viewer to make of these images, these conditions, and these looks what they will. The central section in the taxidermist’s workshop allows for reactions that range from wonderment at a duck’s resurrection to lifelikeness, to pitying its terrible lifelessness. The flaying is unpleasant but not off-putting (weirdly abstract); an air hose makes a more hideous sound than the rending of gristle.
There are many strange noises at the zoo, and several terrible ones (adding to the impressions of the animals’ distress). They play as direct sound; amongst the noises off, however, the addition of aeroplanes and other rumblings are added to a continuous collage carefully pitched to prevent the viewer from slipping into restlessness. This is clued in a single instance where the soundtrack continues unbroken across a cut. It’s also the only cut that establishes a direct relationship between two shots, as a keeper listens to the sound of the tigers’ door-banging.
Authorial presence is otherwise kept distinctly absent, aside from choice and composition of shots. Such a handing-of off responsibility to the audience, in terms of constructing meaning, pitches Bestiaire somewhere deliberately between a film and footage, wonderful or infuriating depending on how much effort a viewer is prepared to make. So carefully provocative in form, one could wish it a little provocative also in terms of the inevitable, and less inevitable, emotional responses, and in terms of the complexity of the gazes involved, from animals to camera, keepers, and audience, and all permutations thereof. But there is no denying that the boundary-pushing sense of experimentation and the lack of nose-leading can work wonders: one audience member assumed the animals at the start were being rounded up to be slaughtered for the taxidermists. Even the less imaginative viewer will be prompted to many meditative trains of thought by Côté’s artful artlessness.
(Canada , France, 2012, 72 mins)
Directed By: Denis Côté
Producer: Sylvain Corbeil
Cinematographer: Vincent Biron