'Bestiaire': Meditation on captive animals both beautiful, repellent
A review of the documentary "Bestiaire," a beautifully shot documentary directed by Denis Côté that takes a cool, sometimes cruel, look at a Quebec safari park.
The New York Times
'Bestiaire,' a documentary directed by Denis Côté. 72 minutes. Not rated. Northwest Film Forum, through Wednesday.
The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.
In "Bestiaire," a cool, sometimes cruel, formally elegant nonfiction look at a Quebec safari park, there's a scene in which some people stop on an outdoor bridge next to a chimpanzee exhibition. The Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté holds the image for what feels like minutes, allowing you to watch a chimp standing in this unnatural home away from home while park visitors barely give the animal a glance.
For a few beats, the chimp gazes in the direction of the camera — toward it, Côté, you. It's a look that feels like "J'accuse!"
Here in this freakish display, animals like this chimpanzee are just another attraction for bored tourists. If that's the interpretation Côté wants the viewer to take away, though, he isn't saying, or not exactly.
The movie has no narration or interviews. Beautifully shot in digital, it instead offers up image after image of animals — animals eating, grazing, walking, standing, staring and, at times, panicking. In one shot, an ostrich peers over a fence as if into the distance — an image that, after a time, transforms from the somewhat comical into the increasingly desperate.
If Côté was after objectivity, as in impartiality and neutrality, he fails in "Bestiaire," a movie that carries his subjective stamp in each shot and edit. It could not be otherwise. As the documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio has observed, "As soon as one points a camera, objectivity is romantic hype." And once you start editing, any vestiges of objectivity vanish, as evidenced by an unsettling cut in "Bestiaire" to a taxidermy workshop filled with the glassy-eyed dead.
The very setting of the movie, a Canadian safari park filled with exotic, warm-climate animals and meandering tourists, makes it clear that Côté was never actually after objectivity. He wanted to take a particular look at the animals, and he wants you to look, too.
In revealing the everyday, sometimes repellent surrealism of the park — where zebras, elephants, camels and ostriches walk among slowly moving cars, and lions bang wildly against their small cages — he forces you to look at the often unseen. It may not be pretty, but it is essential viewing.