Bestiaire: Berlin Film Review

A mesmerizing free-association visual study of the interaction between humans and captive animals.

The doc explores the human fascination with animals, combining footage from a drawing class, a taxidermist’s workshop and a Quebec safari park, both during peak visitor season and in the grim winter months.

BERLIN -- In a New York Times opinion piece last week titled "Why we love zoos," the poet, essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman reflected on animal parks as venues for the discovery of interspecies shared identity, but also as places where humans focus "on the lives of other creatures to dispel the usual mind theaters that plague us." Those notions are challenged as often as reinforced in Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté’s soberly beautiful Bestiaire, but exact conclusions are left for the viewer to form.

Combining commentary-free footage from a drawing class, a taxidermist’s workshop and a Quebec safari park, both during peak visitor season and in the grim winter months, this is a compelling contemplation of the subjective gaze, applied to both humans and animals. Quiet and ruminative yet oddly confronting, the unclassifiable film is as much an art or natural history museum installation as a documentary.

Côté opens with people in intense concentration. Cameraman Vincent Biron’s voyeuristically framed shots cut from faces to heads to upper bodies to sketch artists at easels before revealing their subject: a stuffed animal. That fragmentary approach is a constant throughout. Movement is captured within a static frame, with no music and only the occasional faint snatch of overheard dialogue to intrude on the visual meditation.

In the snowbound enclosures and restrictive holding pens of the safari park, animals are often glimpsed as nervous antlers, skittish hooves, heaving flanks or watchful eyes. In the era of nature documentary as television spectacle, Côté knowingly plays on the absence of the usual anthropomorphizing commentary to give us a less serene view of animal behavior. Head-on shots of wild beasts looking directly into camera can appear curious or accusatory, and the noise of big cats rattling padlocked metal gates assumes unsettling power.

Shots of the mounted heads of cervids and boars segue to the taxidermy section. The grunts and growls of animals give way to the hum of machines as a worker hollows out the body of a duck before zipping it around an artificial carcass and meticulously reassembling it into a perfect facsimile.

The final section returns to the park in summer, spending as much time on the human traffic as the animal attractions. There are arresting images here – zebras filing amongst cars in the drive-through safari; a giraffe stoically enduring the rain; a rhino obligingly shifting positions as a zookeeper hoses it down; a sleeping lion sprawled across the glass roof of a pedestrian walkway, oblivious to observers passing just inches away.

In her Times piece, Ackerman surmised that people are "drawn to a special stripe of innocence they hope to find" at zoos. Côté ostensibly remains outside the debate about whether commercial animal parks are educational facilities or inhumane prisons. But Bestiaire deftly forces us to consider our fascination with other creatures and the cost to them of being placed for our scrutiny in artificial environments.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Metafilms, Nihilproductions, Le Fresnoy, Studio National des Arts Contemporains
Director-screenwriter: Denis Côté
Producers: Sylvain Corbeil, Denis Côté
Director of photography: Vincent Biron
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Sales: FunFilm Distribution
No rating, 72 minutes