It opens with a series of attentive glances thrown every few seconds toward an unseen object, which then proves to be a stuffed doe being sketched by a group of art students. Within that single opening scene, director Denis Côté both establishes his main theme and prescribes the viewer how to approach his film, since a hard, focused look is exactly what’s required to appreciate Bestiaire’s wordless, unlovely splendor.
As we start scrutinizing an unfamiliar space populated by a surprising variety of animal species (introduced in an ascending order of exoticness), we slowly realize we’re inside zoo facilities. Contrary to, say, Frederick Wiseman, whose habitually mammoth 1993 documentary Zoo examined the practical ways the eponymous facility was run, Côté is so disinterested in the mundane aspects of the institution he portrays as to make it look positively abstract. Instead of a narrative of a specific place in time, what we get is a distillation of a place into a string of visions that can work both as documentary and as a free-associational ode to life and stillness alike.
Côté’s images are so ostensibly detached, they somehow manage to be beautiful without ever becoming particularly pleasant to look at. All but devoid of warm colors, the visuals are crisp to the point of making you half-expect your breath to turn into steam in the dark of the theater. That impression is deepened by Côté’s steady refusal to anthropomorphize his non-human subjects, or even explain what species or activity we’re witnessing at any given moment. The camera, instead of serving as means of scientific inquiry or casual surveillance, becomes a tool of defamiliarizing all living creatures it happens to capture.
In contrast to the (not entirely dissimilar) Le Quattro Volte, Côté doesn’t infuse his vision with any sense of cosmic order or situational humor. Bestiaire, by doggedly sticking to a completely manmade environment of the zoo, is less interested in discovering nature’s organizing principle than it is in analyzing the mere gaze humanity is directing at natural phenomena (in that, it’s as much a movie about itself as about representation in general).
The single instance of a structuring fade to black (in a movie otherwise perfectly content with a succession of non-narrative cuts) comes when we start to witness a diligent taxidermist at work midway through the film. For it is taxidermy itself—a process of rendering dead bodies look perpetually poised, and thus deceptively alive—that becomes Bestiaire’s organizing metaphor. By turning nature itself into a theme park that a zoo ultimately is, we deny its key component (death), clouding it with “fun” and “education” instead. Côté deconstructs the mere notion that we’re somehow capable of taming nature’s ruthless ability to disrupt our peace of mind by reminding us of our own animal status. As we observe nature with an almost agitated curiosity, as in the very first shot, it seems to be looking back at us with a single-minded reproach that’s best captured in a twice-repeated image of a seemingly despondent bull’s muzzle staring steadily into the camera and daring us to read our own thoughts into it.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.