Bestiaire | Movie review
Denis Côté stares at animals. They stare back.
Likely to bore those weaned on the anthropomorphizing adventures of Disney nature docs, Denis Côté’s wordless Bestiaire applies the patiently observational methods of James Benning (13 Lakes) to the star attractions of a Quebec menagerie. Eschewing narrative and narration—the location isn’t even revealed until the end credits—the film unfolds as an endless succession of blankly staring bovines, restless big cats and other uncomfortably caged creatures. The subject here is our enduring fascination with fauna—a zoological interest that, typically and historically, has less-than-pleasant consequences for the objects of our curiosity. Opening shots of students sketching a stuffed deer, coupled with later scenes of taxidermists at work, serve as a potent reminder that human obsession with the animal kind extends beyond living specimens.
One could also read this artful if repetitive doc as a general study in voyeurism, especially given the way Côté intersperses the critter footage with shots of similarly dead-eyed zookeepers. Like a cinematic Rorschach test, Bestiaire accommodates multiple readings, allowing its audience to project theories about spectatorship and captivity onto its silent beasts of burden. The obliqueness muffles any sense of outrage; you won’t leave ready to cancel your zoo membership. If anything, the more playful moments evoke the joys of animal watching: An ostrich head floating into frame operates as a visual joke, while clumsy mammals stumble unexpectedly through Côté’s static compositions, like the photo-bombing cats of YouTube fame.