In the Middle Ages, bestiaries were books made up of illustrations of animals accompanied by descriptions containing moral lessons for the reader. With Bestiaire, Côté has reclaimed this tradition, merging elements of the documentary, the essay film and the art film to craft a superb cinematic equivalent.
The film consists almost exclusively of static shots portraying several dozen species of exotic animals held at a Quebec safari park. Although without extra-diegetic soundtrack and virtually free of dialogue, Bestiaire derives much of its impact from the perfect synergy between image and sound. The first half, for example, shows the animals held in a warehouse during the park’s winter closure. In depicting these beautiful animals in a world of concrete and corrugated metal, the meticulous composition of the frame heightens the scene’s artificiality while the menacing ambient sounds of the warehouse – the echoing laments from other enclosures, the hollow reverberations of clanking hooves and banging cages, the snowstorm raging outside – compound the already violent absurdity of the image, rendering it immediate and inescapable.
While indisputably haunting, to consider the film an animal rights treatise would be reductive. Côté’s bestiary is not didactic; it invites introspection. Never tedious or repetitive, the film’s masterly executed minimalism generates a deep level of empathy in the viewer, which then inevitably reflects back, engendering a confrontation with one’s own morality that reaches far beyond the gates of the safari park
Bestiaire | Directed by Denis Côté (Canada/France 2012). Opens April 25 for a week-long run at the fsk - Kino am Oranienplatz. It will also screen on April 18 at the Arsenal as part of their Denis Côté retrospective.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Exberliner.