Dennis Côté’s ‘Bestiaire’ Prompts Reflection on the Conventions of Cinematic Narrative

Medieval Europeans were fascinated by bestiaries, illustrated books describing real and imaginary animals and their purported traits. These books included legendary beings such as mermaids and sirens, while also providing fanciful descriptions of real animals such as the pelican, which was reported to revive its young by feeding them its blood. The descriptions of the beasts were typically accompanied by moral and/or Biblical interpretations, so that the mermaid served as a warning against the temptations of lust, while the pelican was an allegory of Christ.

Filmmaker Denis Côté creates a modern bestiary, using a movie camera instead of parchment and quill, with his documentary Bestiaire. Unlike his medieval counterparts, however, Côté deliberately avoids imposing moral interpretations on his images, and also avoids anything like a conventional narrative structure. Instead, he uses a quiet camera to observe animals, and sometimes people, while leaving viewers to interpret the images as they will.

Bestiaire starts with a bit of a tease—it opens with an extreme close-up of a thoughtful young woman and the sound of a pencil scratching, followed by more extreme close-ups of other equally intent young people. Gradually we intuit that we are observing an art class, as the camera pulls back to medium shots including sketchpads and easels. Eventually, we are shown what they are drawing—a stuffed deer, glimpsed first on one of the artist’s sketchpads, then in fragments, and finally in its entirety in a long shot revealing a group of artists hard at work creating a likeness of a subject totally unaware of their attention because it has long since ceased to be alive.

This opening scene is the most carefully constructed sequence in Bestiaire, and sets up the rest of the film, a collection of mostly long takes of animals, their keepers, and some taxidermists, as well. The result is a sort of random trip to the zoo, from both the visitors’ and employees’ points of view, but without the usual context of other visitors or the ability to control your own course through the exhibits.

Bestiaire takes away the viewer’s agency, because (as in any conventional film) you cannot control the succession of shots. At the same time, it fails to provide the viewer with anything like a conventional narrative framework. Because most people are used to films that tell stories or make arguments, the natural response is to impose meaning on the images in Bestiaire, a response that reduces their immediateness and reality. Whatever else this film may be, it is a record of real moments in the lives of some zoo animals and employees, and attempts to force a conventional meaning on it (e.g., an argument for the close kinship of humans and animals, or a speculation on whether zoo animals are as interested in observing us as we are in observing them) makes it both more abstract and less interesting.

But I’m only human, and given the narrative black hole of Bestiaire, I found myself thinking about basic filmic conventions, and in particular how directors usually go about creating film narratives. Most contemporary films are made up of a collection of relatively brief shots in a sequence deliberately crafted by the director and editor to create an emotional response and tell a story. It’s true that the pace of editing has increased over the decades—according to film scholar David Bordwell, the average shot length in Hollywood films between 1930 and 1960 was eight to 11 seconds, while by 1999-2000 it was more like three to six seconds—but whether we’re talking about 1930 or 2000, the typical feature film is made up of relatively short segments combined into a single coherent whole.

There are exceptions, of course. Some narrative films include long takes that draw attention to themselves because they are so much an exception to the expected rhythm: examples include the opening sequence in Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil and the Copacabana sequence in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas. Other directors, such as Béla Tarr and Chantal Akerman, are known for constructing films primarily out of long takes.

What Côté is doing in Bestiaire is something different. Without having calculated the average shot length for this film, I feel safe in saying that it’s considerably longer than the current norm for Hollywood features, and considerably shorter than in a typical Ackerman or Tarr film. In fact, many of the shots in Bestiaire feel longer than they really are because they convey no sense that the director has anything in particular to say in them. Rather than a long take packed full of visual and narrative interest, as in the Welles and Scorsese examples cited above, Côté’s long takes are sometimes just the product of a still camera pointed in the direction of something. Some shots are as beautifully framed as a painting, while in others it appears that Côté didn’t particularly care if (for instance) the animals stayed in the frame or not. At the same time, most of Cöté’s shots are not so long as to put the viewer in a meditative frame of mind—instead, the cuts keep bringing you back to the fact that you are watching a film.

All this technical and philosophical rumination doesn’t answer the basic question of whether Bestiaire is worth 72 minutes of your life. I’d say it is, if you are interested in an unusual cinematic experience that may induce philosophical reveries about filmic conventions and the experience of narrative. The sound and picture are both excellent on the DVD, but only one extra is included on the disk: an 11-minute interview with Côté, during which he explains his approach to making this film.

RATING 6 / 10