Denis Côté's Bestiaire is the film art version of those webcam pages on zoo websites where you can watch the animals from inside their enclosures. Or more accurately, it is the moment when you notice the brown bear is pacing the length of his obviously too small plastic rock environment, walking up to a point then retreating back along the same path in a visibly neurotic stupor. Côté's portrait of a Quebec Zoo, Parc Safari, on one level, serves as a distressing picture of the trauma of animal captivity, but also as exploration of the psychology of human engagement and relation with animals.
Through selective exposure to the most uncomfortable moments of zoo-life, contrasted with human reaction to animals, it shows the depressing side of zookeeping, the damage that captivity does to naturally wild animals, regardless of quality of treatment. Through moments of animal desperation, frustration, anxiety and sometimes panic; shots of zebras panicking and charging around frantically into the walls of their confinement, a monkey clinging desperately to his monkey toy and a hyena pacing over the three steps it can manage in an enclosure barely larger than its body, Bestiaire shows the claustrophobia of captivity, and the distress it creates in the animals kept in it. Côté claims the tone he was reaching for was absurdity, but the one that comes across is more morose.
Or at least, this is one reading. Côté's film is, at the face of it, morally neutral. an ethnographic, narration-free observation, something like a Frederick Wiseman film. Though to not come away with sympathy for the animals seems unlikely, since his selection of displayed animal behaviours are largely neurotic or distressed ones.
Opening with a tantalisingly composed sequence of closeup shots of art students - first of their pencils, their faces, then the reveal of what they are drawing, stuffed deer - Bestiaire is mostly compromised of long, static takes, mostly of animals in their enclosures, at animal level, as well as time spent with humans, taxidermists and zookeepers, as well as zoo patrons. From the opening, where humans are shown obsessively examining animals, if still, dead ones, to the close, where a elephant walks off accompanied to the sounds of the students pencils scratching, Bestiaire is about observation and interpretation. The title refers to the Bestiarys of the middle ages, volumes of stories that relate individual animals to a moral lesson, creating backstories for an animal that allow humans to relate and understand its place in the world. To make the stretch that Côtés film is about applied narratives then, is not too far a leap. Cotes' bestiary presents seemingly neutral images for long lengths of time, asking the viewer to observe and explore the frame, making it impossible not to apply meaning and explanation.
Côté's film is perhaps an investigation into the human tendency to anthropomorphise animals, our need to humanise animals by imposing human narratives and characteristics on them, like the old Bestiarys attempted, whether through telling stories with them, drawing or stuffing them. Humans, as Côtés' frequent, protracted closeups into the animal's expressive faces suggest, love to see human behaviours in animals.Gaze long into the buffalo and the buffalo also gazes into you.
Côtés' camera (unlike that of a nature documentarian where animal grace is displayed through observation of natural wild behaviours,) captures animals going about neurotic, unnatural movements, freaking out, or behaving oddly, because of the limitations of captivity._ Bestiaire_ shows how the camera tells different stories depending on its usage, the subjectivity of the camera, in this case with reference to animal behaviour.. How documentary is not so much the camera observing an environment objectively, but observing the section and time the operator chooses for it to observe, in order to push the narrative line or suggestion required. The same animals, in the same environment, can appear entirely content and comfortable, when viewed from different angles and with a different intent. Côtés' presentation of them is rarely sees them at their happiest.
Through careful framing and shot selection, and effective soundwork, the cacophonous milieu of later parts where the crowds of visitors are present, counterpoising the chilling echoes of animals rattling cages of early parts, where the camera is in with the animals alone, Côté creates a haunting portrait of animal malaise, Whether this was what he intended or not is unclear, but animals have definitely been seen happier onscreen.
Bestiaire, though essentially just an hour or so of static shots of animals going about their business, is a film that encourages response and interpretation, and has rewards in doing so. Côté says he tried to run the balance between it seeming too guided and too random, the result is something that hints and pushes at readings, but ultimately lets the viewer decide them. Regardless of whether this approach is lazy, or inspired, in this case it works.