Judge Daryl Loomis does not like zoos.
"In the end, this film is about contemplation…"—and something else. Something indefinable, something more obscure, which I hope to find out more about with the help of the audience."—Denis Côté on Bestiaire
Is there any such thing as objectivity in art? Some will argue that it's possible, but in order to do so convincingly, they will have to redefine either objectivity or art. That's fine for those who want to do that, but it holds little water for me. I find true objectivity to be a tenuous concept in any field, but art more so than anywhere else. Creating something, whether it's a story, a sculpture, or a painting, is a purely subjective act that comes directly from the artist's mind. Attempts at objectivity fail as a result of an individual's experiences and world view, which are themselves subjective.
This is equally and especially true in film, where the writer, director, cinematographer, and editor all put their own spin on the product and, after which, viewers take their own angle. The idea of presenting objectivity in cinema is pretty tough, if not impossible. Yet that's exactly what director Denis Côté attempts to achieve in Bestiaire, a piece that shows animals at a zoo, their human observers, and taxidermists at work. He has no success with his aim, but that doesn't make the film any less interesting.
Indeed, in his goal of objectivity, he delivers one of the clearest pictures of cinematic subjectivity that I've seen in some time. This film, while non-fiction, is very difficult to describe as a documentary. Without narration, dialog, or non-diegetic sound, Côté presents a film that demands a lot from the viewer, both in interpretation and in patience.
He begins the film by editing together clips of people drawing something, but we can't see what. Ultimately, it turns out to be a stuffed deer, but that's less important in itself than as an introduction to the meat of the production, the Parc Safari in Hemmingford, Quebec. The zoo's gimmick is to fabricate the natural environments of the animals for the hordes of tourists to observe. Of course, the idea that animals from Africa can or should exist in frigid Quebec is kind of crazy on the face, but that doesn't stop them from profiting off of it.
Côté films the animals in their show form as the people watch them and they watch the people. He alternates this footage with the animals as they are most of the time, in cruelly small cages where they stand, hardly able to move, when Parc Safari is closed at night and during the cold winter months. I hate to anthropomorphize animals, but there's no doubt that, standing on concrete in a tightly confined space, they are distressed. Then, when the creatures die, they are transferred to a taxidermist, where they are stuffed and returned to Parc Safari for display.
Presenting all of this without comment or music gives the impression of objectivism, a goal Côté has discussed in various interviews (including the one included on the disc), but he betrays that idea all over the place. First, he has chosen when, where, and what to film. Sometimes, he shoots the full animals and, sometimes, he chooses to show just the legs or a horn or a close up on the face. These are all inherently subjective acts, and then there's the part of the viewer. He can say all day long that it's up to the audience to interpret the material for themselves, but he must know that the way he frames his shots and the choices he has made influence their interpretation. Even the title of the film, which is French for "bestiary," the centuries-old practice of making tableaus of animals with morality and spirituality attached, makes a strong statement about how we view animals. Côté can claim that it's my choice of how to see these choices, but he has made choices himself.
Even though his attempt at objectivity fails, Bestiaire is still an artfully filmed and interesting documentary, so much as one can really call it that. Cinematographer Vincent Biron puts together a lovely frame, with a lot of style and variation. The film's quiet nature invokes plenty of thought and feeling that can be interpreted in many different ways. My own feelings of disgust about zoos in general most certainly affect the way I viewed the footage; somebody with a more positive attitude toward them may well see the same footage very differently. That it can inspire conversations like this is the film's best attribute and what makes it such an interesting experience.
Bestiaire arrives on DVD from Zeitgeist Films in a release that is pretty standard for the label. The beautiful cinematography is well-represented in the transfer, which is sharp and crisp with plenty of detail in the frame. The sound mix is essentially irrelevant, given the lack of any significant sound design, but the noise of the animals comes through clearly enough. The very brief and intentionally soft voices of the workers and onlookers are in French without subtitles, but makes sense given the subject and style. The only extra is the interview with the director, in which he talks about his aim for the film and some of the struggles in working with Parc Safari.
Bestiaire is an interesting film. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, and often challenging, it will provoke thought and conversation, and even if it doesn't succeed in its goal of pure objectivity, that still makes it a film well worth watching.
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