Near the start of Denis Cote’s BESTIARE a petrified baby deer runs in circles inside its enclosure, tiny hooves clip-clopping against the hard floor. Its movements – trapped, repetitive and going nowhere – sum up the reaction many viewers will have watching the Canadian’s latest experimental film.

Set in a Safari Park in Canada, the film portrays the everyday lives of the animals, staff and visitors in static long shots. It is more of a visual montage than a documentary, and at times is quite dull. Cote attempts to evoke a sense of entrapment and voyeurism in his cinematography, but a rigid style hinders his message.

Cote has said each of his films is a revolt against his previous work, and BESTIAIRE is unlike anything that he, or anyone else, has done. The film features no narration, plot, or dialogue. Instead he frames his shots like a series of CCTV cameras, holding the camera still and letting the animals move around it. It is a technique that occasionally has effective results. In one shot a group of scared zebras run manically around an indoor paddock, creating a sense of confusion and unjustified imprisonment. The sound of their scraping hooves – excellently captured by the film’s impressive sound design – adds to the sense of chaos.

Some viewers may be captivated by this unusual approach and may feel a sense of empathy with the caged animals as they pace around their cages.

There are also moments of humour. Towards the end of the film three bears are being fed by a staff member. Two of the bears catch the food easily in their mouths, but the hapless, uncoordinated third misses every time, looking despondent as his food falls limply to the floor. However, the film also falls flat for long stretches of its running time. Even though there are moments of interest, Cote’s insistence on keeping his camera static – instead of panning and tracking to follow the animals’ movements – means that a lot of the time only part of the animal is in shot. It is a frustrating technique that produces a sense of ennui rather than intrigue. BESTIAIRE’s lack of narration and direction also contributes to it feeling laboriously longer than its 70 minutes running time. The viewer longs for an Attenborough-style figure to pop up and inject some life or insight into project.

Some viewers may be captivated by this unusual approach and may feel a sense of empathy with the caged animals as they pace around their cages. However, others will be put off by a film that takes minimalist documentary techniques to the extreme.


2 thoughts on “Bestiaire”

    1. The reviewer didn’t really say it was. If “actuality-style catalog of context-free tableaux invites auds to free-associate with the scenes” is getting it more accurately then I’ll stick with ‘inaccurate’. I say that as someone who very much liked the film…I disagree with the review’s preferences but it hasn’t said anything inaccurate.

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