As filmmaker Denis Côté himself inquired in the pages of Cinema Scope, “does the animal exist outside of its propensity for being put in the perspective of human destinies and behaviors?” Not when regarded by curious eyes: In motion or in repose, caged or free, the animal becomes in observation an icon of revered nobility, an unknowable primal force guided by instinct, or even some oblivious jester performing for our amusement. It becomes a symbol of our hopes and fears, ever in thrall to the whims of a higher order; our pet cats don't want for anything beyond food or affection when they meow at us, but the temptation to project more substantial moods and motivations to their blank, receptive faces makes us treat them like the relatable household companions we desire. In other words, we code animals as a kind of natural entertainment, readily calibrated to suit our dispositions, and we lap up their varying cuteness, ferocity, and grace like a child enamored with his or her favorite toy. But this tendency to see what we want in animals, fueled by an inability to understand or relate to them, prevents us from seeing them as they really are. In the words of Côté, we are blind to the animal as “simply a living, breathing organism who drools, moves about, and sleeps.”
Bestiaire, Côté's passively observational documentary set in and around the Parc Safari in Hemmingford, Quebec, attempts with great clarity of vision to regard its animal subjects without prejudice or inflection, and its inability to ultimately do so might be the closest thing it has to a thesis. Like Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's extraordinary Leviathan, Bestiaire submerges us within a rigorously organized commercial system while pointedly effacing the details of its daily operation, so that a doc ostensibly concerned with a sprawling outdoor zoo more closely resembles, in practice, an abstraction attuned to the rhythm of the environment rather than its functional mechanics. Its purpose isn't our edification: By the end of the film we understand how a place like this operates about as well as the lion understands why it's caged. Spectacle, instead, is an alternate recourse, and much of the film's running time is dedicated to the act of observing animals as they drool, move about, and sleep. The attended pleasures are simple but irresistible: a small deer steadily pacing in circles adopts the tenor of physical comedy; a handful of ponies meandering aimlessly emanate childlike innocence and warmth; and the hard stare of a bull, seeming to return our gaze, is oddly disarming.
But Bestiaire slowly gravitates from fenced-in pastures toward the Parc's steel-walled nerve center, and as the system's strictures narrow, one begins to suspect that these images are informed by more than a benign interest in detached observation. Cold chambers of control and confinement suddenly become, without commentary or coercion, a vision of ritualized cruelty, a hell of our own design. Two zebras rattling their shared, cramped quarters in anger and confusion might as well be the Irish prisoners of Steve McQueen's Hunger, smearing their own shit over the walls in protest, and the suggestion that we're ethically and morally culpable for permitting this ongoing violence hangs over the proceedings until the residual guilt is unbearable. That this increasingly difficult section of the film is immediately followed by a long, languorous detour into an overview of a taxidermist's laborious craft only furthers the sense that Bestiaire, despite operating from an apparent remove, is a clear indictment of a system that's quite obviously abhorrent. It argues persuasively without words, without resorting to visual cheap shots or reductive, Godfrey Reggio-style match cuts, making a case without explicating one at all.
Bestiaire's final passages offer some reprieve from the suffocating confines of wrought iron cages and bird-stuffing, set amid comparatively open spaces and less harried animals. A lion splayed across the top of an enclosed transparent walkway sleeps lazily, uninterested in the onlookers pointing up in awe beneath him, and for a moment we're back to gazing innocently at creatures who don't seem to care. But then the onlookers multiply: Bestiaire shifts its focus toward the middle-class tourists who are at the Parc, hunched over or craning their necks to gawk at the animals. Throngs of schoolchildren poke and prod baby deer as long lines of cars inch through “authentic” safari traffic in search of the perfect vacation snapshot. At first it seems like heavy-handed finger-wagging, a potshot aimed at schlubby tourists feeding a corrupt industry. But then there's the bull again, staring back at us rather than the tourists, and it becomes obvious that we're all the target. This is both criticism and self-criticism, undermining the impulse to elevate ourselves above easy targets; we're just as captivated by the spectacle of these animals, and even if we're gleaning some politicized import, we're guilty of submitting to the same intrusive curiosity. We want to watch animals and we want to understand them, explain them, know them. Our desire to impose ourselves on them is primal.