The animal gaze

OUT NOW! BESTIAIRE's phenomenal collage of animal portraits speaks volumes without uttering a single word.

In the Middle Ages, bestiaries were books of animal illustrations accompanied by descriptions containing moral lessons.

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 of a series of static shots portraying several dozen species of exotic animals at a Quebec safari park. 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 in a warehouse during the park’s winter closure. 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 the film is indisputably haunting, considering it 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, 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). Starts April 25