Bestiaire - SideReel Review
Quebecois director Denis Cote’s Bestiaire takes its title from a "bestiary," a now-obsolete literary form popular in the Middle Ages that featured images or real or mythical animals accompanied by colorful descriptions -- that is, a sort of medieval picture book of fauna. In keeping with this theme, Cote shot all of the scenes in and around Quebec’s Parc Safari menagerie. But to categorize Bestiaire as anything close to a traditional documentary on animals, zoos, or zoology would be an errant summation.
On one level, the film constitutes Cote’s free-form exploration of how we, as viewers, see and learn visually through the analytical process of reading a motion picture. Cote may lead us through the Parc Safari, but his approach is austere and demanding -- he dispenses with voiceover narration, relies on long, fixed takes of his animal subjects and landscapes, and, most trenchantly, often frames those subjects in such a way that we only get a piece of an animal’s form at a time. The result is both confining and liberating, a lovely paradox. It’s restrictive in the sense that we become more acutely aware of how subservient we are to Cote’s choices -- a heightened sense of the subjectivity of the medium itself. It’s liberating because it forces us to scrutinize more closely, for spans of time protracted far beyond anything present in a conventional feature or documentary, whatever is present onscreen. For example: During the shots that merely depict a fraction of the animals’ bodies, one finds oneself observing, say, yak horns or zebra hooves in a revelatory light. The scenic de-contextualization throws the images into striking bas-relief. And the landscape shots force one to break through mass-media-conditioned impatience, to surrender to the film’s lenteur and actually look at whatever Cote is shooting within the broader contexts of space and time. There are echoes of Bela Tarr here, as well as a protege of his, the great Filipino director Lav Diaz -- once one gets past one’s own preconditioned responses, one starts to notice nuances of the onscreen landscape or subjects that initially slipped past conscious identification.
As this occurs, we also become more aware of the intellectual/emotional bias of our own interpretations regarding the close-ups of animals. Inevitably, we feel a tendency to read human emotions into the faces of say, llamas, bulls, and yaks, but Cote seems to be calling our attention to this -- asking, "Is it fair or rational, to oversimplify nature in this way?" The same is true of two sequences that involve human subjects -- an extended look at a taxidermist physically sculpting a model duck has an incredibly grotesque quality -- likewise a brief scene with an amusement-park employee dressing up as a cartoon chipmunk. In both cases, there is an ironic undertone: You can feel nature trivialized, compartmentalized into a phenomenon more easily digested, and Cote is deliberately highlighting something patronizing, even offensive. Even though occasional glimpses of dawdling tourists imply a few fleeting parallels and similarities between animals and humans, we’re struck even harder by how enigmatic and incomprehensible nature is, how vast and deep and unbreachable the chasm may be that lies between one kingdom and another. Perhaps that helps explain why the final close-ups of animal eyes and faces seem so much more opaque, impenetrable and beguiling than the ones that opened the film -- and why the appearances of animal enclosures at the Parc Safari eventually grow not simply poignant but heartbreaking.
Cote is no stranger to challenging his audience, of course, and that is particularly true here. This is one of those rare films that takes its audience to someplace new, fresh, undreamt of. As such, those willing to invest the time, care and attention that it demands will find it exhilarating.