Denis Côté: Bestiaire (2012) | film poster
Denis Côté: Bestiaire (2012) | film poster excerpt

Denis Côté’s ‘Bestiaire’: Animals Looking at People Looking at Animals

As contained as the animals in Denis Côté’s ‘Bestiaire’ may be, so too are the people. The question is, who is aware of whom?

Denis Côté
Metafilms / Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains
19 October 2012

Le documentaire d’auteur est de plus en plus rare. C’est triste. Il faut vendre un ‘sujet’ aux télévisions aujourd’hui pour survivre. C’est la loi de la jungle. Seuls les cinéastes les plus personnels et aventureux sortiront du lot et marqueront l’Histoire du cinéma (si c’est encore possible).

Denis Côté

Bestiaire opens on art students. They appear first in close-ups so tight that you have no idea where they might be, but you can hear their pencils scratching and observe their gazes flipping between their work and their object. When the film at last grants you a glimpse of what they’re looking at, you see, in close-up, that it’s a deer. You see that there is something strange about it, something stiff, and then the shot cuts back to a wide one at last, so you see the assembly of students, their easels, and the deer — stuffed.

The scene, so brief and so disconcerting, initiates a series of questions, concerning people and animals, art and consumption, even documentary and la loi de la jungle. How might you begin to parse the connections among these tight and long shots, these earnest gazes and the dead beasts’ glassy eyes? What sense can you make of such activity, as familiar as it may be, when it’s delivered without context, when, indeed, it becomes context for what follows — which is a sequence of remarkable images, of animals at the Parc Safari in Hemmingford, Quebec.

These images show bison and ponies pacing in their pens, a monkey clutching a stuffed animal, zebras frantic in their stalls, as well as keepers feeding tigers and chimps, hosing down rhinos or mucking stalls. Even as they reveal daily activities at the Parc, these shots expose something else too, they expose your own relationship to the animals, both as a concept and category, and as individual creatures whose existence is now defined as being watched by people.

In part, and most obviously, this existence is a function of the Parc. But more profoundly, it is shaped by human assumptions of privilege, access, and decisions, their definitions of animals as resources or property. The shots in Bestiaire challenge these assumptions, first in their frankly stunning beauty (they’re gorgeously composed and lit, backed by ambient noise, including tractors and hoses and off-screen animal moans) and second in their potent storytelling. On its surface, the images in Denis Côté’s film appear random — here’s an antelope or an elephant, there’s an ostrich. Each animal in its pen appears disconnected from any other, and the film offers not usual cues for connection, no single figure to follow and no narration (as in Nénette) and no apparent narrative trajectory (as in the last sheepherding drive, in Sweetgrass). Instead, you see birds and hyenas, a yak who appears to look back at you, a pair of dromedaries huddled together, and zebras’ legs shot from floor level, their hooves clattering frantically into walls and slipping on the cement.

You might read in each scene a kind of mini-story, of the yak’s awareness or the zebras’ fear. But as you’re reading, you’re also participating, not in the treatment of any one of these animals, but in the broader arc, the one that sets you in relation to what you’re watching, formally, morally, even viscerally. And as you see that Bestiaire is as much about you as about the giraffe who looms in a superbly low angle shot or the lion who paces in and out of frame even as the sound of his banging on the cage is incessant, you might also reassess the sequence of shots in the stuffing room.

This unnerving sequence begins much as the film does, with a seemingly contextless image, a medium shot of a yellowed newspaper ad, two girls in bikinis taped to a wall. Beneath the clipping, you see a machine, spitting and spinning and rolling. When the shot cuts to a long, side view of the machine, you see what’s behind it, a set of deer heads, mounted. A taxidermist enters the frame and attends to the machine, which is preparing a dead animal for stuffing. Following, you observe the process, the picking of skin and fur and feathers, the sounds of drying and sucking and stitching and ripping that make up the painstaking labor of preparing dead animals for display.

In a horror movie, the sounds alone would be chilling, as would the look at a man’s back, clothed in plaid shirt as he bends over his stuffing desk. In this movie, the sequence shows such noise to be mundane, the most material and daily work of the Parc, making use of dead animals so they might still be displayed and consumed.

When the film turns to the Parc’s innovative structuring of the great cats’ display — such that the lions might lay out on a glass box while visitors in pink and green and white t-shirts walk below, their fingers pointing and their smiles wide — it’s disconcerting in another way. As contained as the lions may be, so too are the people. The question is, who is aware of what? Or better, who is aware of whom?

RATING 10 / 10