Bestiare (2012, Denis Côté)
It barely over a year ago that Québec filmmaker Denis Côté charmed and mystified audiences with Curling, a lyrical, quiet and subtle story about the relationship between a socially inept single father and his daughter, whom he preserves from ills of the world in hermit-like manner. Showcasing an enviable ability to surf from one genre to another, director Côté returns with a documentary about the animals which parade in and around Parc Safari (located just outside the city of Montreal), both during the summertime when they come out to strut their stuff and during the bitter winter period when kept under close scrutiny by the caretakers in confined spaces.
A plot synopsis or overview would serve absolutely no purpose in the case of Bestiaire, not because it is a documentary, but because the film honestly depicts exactly what was written about the introductory paragraph. Côté carefully chooses a series of locations to rest his camera in order to catch something interesting in the frame...and the animals are then permitted to do what they do, which limits itself to walking around, sniffling, eating, sleeping, observing what the viewer assumes are some people walking about, performing their ritualistic tasks of keeping the establishment fully functional. This first portion of the film, which transpires during the winter season with the animals resting and playing in the park's Hemingford, Québec winter compound. Bestiaire quickly establishes itself as the sort of documentary that offers so little information in terms of narration or interviews, given that their are strictly none whatsoever throughout the entire film, that the viewer is left to soak in the images and sounds and make do with the picture in however way it speaks to them individually. It is a bit of a gamble on the part of the director, especially when considering that films of this nature rarely capture audiences to fullest degree. Documentaries that make it big are more along the lines of Bowling for Columbine and Super Size Me, which stuff the viewer with information and package it all in a beautiful, quirky presentation. There is nothing inherently wrong with such documentary filmmaking techniques, they are merely being mentioned in this review for comparative purposes in order for anyone reading this article and curious to discover Bestiaire to have a sense of what is in store for them. This is the polar opposite of such films.
On the topic of Côté's static frames and the animal movements within them, the picture's initial chapter does present some arresting and even thought provoking imagery. The most striking aspect is without question the presentation of a tremendous wild animals, clearly not from this continent, roaming around on the snow around buildings resembling boring farm factories. Immediately this brings to our attention that the creatures are not where they should be. That being said, Parc Safari, like all zoos, remains a business, with hundreds of people looking after the animals as best they can with as much dedication as they can muster on a daily basis. Côté provides a totally objective insiders view how an enterprise such as this operates, Safari being a curious example precisely because it is located in a region of the world where the temperature drops below 0 degrees Celsius for a solid portion of the year, a climate lions, chimpanzees, hyenas, bison and tropical birds are obviously not accustomed to. It makes for a strange juxtaposition of different worlds and speaks to the complicated relationship between humans and their wildlife counterparts in the animal kingdom. Man can dominate such terrific beasts, yet even when apparently in control, the greatest of precautions must always be taken. Perhaps 'dominate' is the incorrect term, but the capability to artificially create a home for wild animals which operates at the whim of Man is really a fascinating notion if one stops to wonder about it even if only for a moment.
The second and shortest portion of the film invites the audience to observe employees hard at work in the creation of animals busts and statues often seen in museums. Côté focuses especially on an individual preparing a little loon statuette. The Styrofoam carved body awaits on the table as the man carefully, diligently peels of the skin and plumage from the deceased bird. The movements are calculated and precise. No words are spoken, full concentration in invested in the visually repulsive if endlessly watchable steps. In this room, animals are given 'new life'. After all, once the employees are completed what is asked of them and the statues are placed in nature museums, who does not stop to admire them? They appear clean, proud, majestic...and yet they are dead. All very strange, this business.
Finally, summer arrives and Parc Safari is open to the public. Vehicles are permitted to take a slow drive down some specific roads where less dangerous animals roam, visitors may walk through protective see-through hallways in a lion's den, monkeys lie around in their parks and swing in their trees, families take rides on infant elephants. The culmination of the journey Bestiaire embarked on does not resolve the many provocative thoughts that may wrestle in the viewer's mind. So this is what it has come to? Lions growing ridiculously lazy as kids walk by with their parents, chimpanzees looking away from visitors, either completely oblivious to their presence or bored out of their skulls, elephants following the same simple path as instructed by their caretakers whenever visitors pay money to hop onto their backs. The Parc Safari conclusion only further pronounces the oddity that is the life of these creatures, who are not permitted to being themselves, all the while living a secure life where humans dutifully serve their every need. The good with the bad, as always.
There is an irony to the fact that Denis Côté opens the film with a class of four or five art students each drawing their own versions of a fawn statue that stands before them. They are making pieces of art, in essence artificial representations of a wild animal, the latter now an artificial presentation of itself. The wonderful employees at Parc Safari and its winter hideout very much do the same, simulating homes for African beasts, although their profession is complicated by the presence of real life animals. Here is Denis Côté, engulfing the entire process through film, just another medium in our continued quest to construct representations of real life that can speak to us in subtle and complex ways.