Friday 2 March 2012

Bestiaire (Denis Côté, 2012) Review

A scene from Denis Côté's Bestiaire (2012)...

Canadian auteur Denis Côté has always been fascinated by the people on society's fringe, but in his latest picture - the sort-of-documentary Bestiaire - he challenges our basic perception of the outcast, or more specifically, the voyeur. Across 72 transfixing minutes Côté observes the animals in Quebec's Park Safari, but the topic of his study remains unknown. A little research unearths that the director didn't approach Bestiaire with any thesis, suggesting that the film emerged from his desire to explore "certain energies", and to observe "the relations or maybe even failed encounters between humans and animals." As a documentary it's completely open-ended, free of dialogue, commentary or even subject - what we are watching is a construct, but its content is open to interpretation and debate. For instance, some have suggested that the film presents an anti-zoo stance. Does it? One shot, locked onto a panel of four CCTV cameras, each flickering with the grey image of inmates pacing their cells, might suggest as much, as could the emphasis on a padlock in a later scene, and the lion furiously pawing at its cage doors, crying freedom. Ultimately I believe that Côté's perspective is neutral, but one of Bestiaire's fascinations is deciding when and where (if at all) the director is engaging with what lies before his camera. The film's final third observes the animals during visiting hours (another term suggesting imprisonment), but Côté's choice of lens emphasizes lions and children equally, and one shot - of the kids playing and mimicking each other - might provoke discussion about the borders of captivity; are we trapped in their world, or they in ours? Côté's subjects frequently meet his gaze, and for the bulls at Park Safari, he is the entertainment.

Forty minutes into the film Côté makes his first consciously cinematic transition, fading the image to black and re-opening in a taxidermist's studio. The animals here, as in the zoo, are surveyed through rhythmically arranged static shots, each held for around thirty seconds. I'm still unsure of Côté's intention with these scenes, but they sustained my interest, which was piqued from the opening frame of artists sketching a stuffed deer. It's a most unusual prospect for cinema, the art of the voyeur, to invite an audience into the auditorium to be looked at, and to observe others looking. There is no score here, only the pronounced use of diegetic sound (as in Côté's fiction filmmaking), and often the noises of Park Safari achieve an odd poetry; the clapping of zebra's hooves, for example, which hypnotize like a frenzied tap dance. There's so much to consider in Bestiaire, and yet no real way to sell its fascination to an audience who aren't immediately caught by its premise: exploring the established line of sight between animals and humans. One of my favorite scenes in Côté's Curling (2010), an eerily downbeat study of a father/daughter on the edge of reality, involves an imprisoned tiger, regarded with fearful curiosity by the 12-year-old Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau). In that surreal moment (it's entirely debatable whether the tiger exists) Côté captures an unknowing innocence, and that very quality seems to be his motivation for Bestiaire, a tender portrait of the most beautiful, fragile and complex phenomena on Earth. Life.

Bestiaire premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. A UK release date is yet to be confirmed...

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