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Director: Denis Côté.

Rating: 3.5/5

The opening scenes in Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté’s Bestiaire suggest his film will both observe and celebrate the co-existence we share with the beasts of this planet. It does that wonderfully well, but it also captures the complexities of that world view and, most importantly, from the perspective of the animals in certain instances. In that regard, Bestiaire is a remarkable study.

Honouring the literary tradition of the bestiaire (journals filled with illustrations and information on all manner of animal life), Côté’s first images are of art-class sketchers straining to not only replicate but also honour the physicality of a posed gazelle. It is fair to assume that the straight lines and simple, supple curves of the creature would be easy to draw, but it isn’t; the artists struggle with a true reproduction of it’s fur and antlers and ears. The filmmaker wants to redress this disconnect by filming a more truthful interaction of man and beast and takes his camera into a zoological park in Hemingford, Québec.

At times resembling a commissioned museum installation, Côté uses long takes and randomly framed images as well as a very complex and painstakingly rendered sound-scape. The settings change on a few occasions, in line with the seasons, and the mood shifts from playful and serene to ominous (a big cat’s incessant bashing of its enclosure door had audience members squirming in their seats, for example).

A determinedly artful project, the apparent abstractness and occasionally overstated series of images may prove too coolly esoteric for all but the most patient festival crowds and animal lovers. A mid-film sequence that goes into the workroom of a taxidermist and hints at the strong hand that mankind is capable of when dealing with our four-legged friends was too much for some and a few walkouts occurred. Procedures that bring a fake new-life to a duck in a room filled with mounted heads proved a little too jarring and further emphasise an uneasiness inherent to the man/animal co-existence.

Côté’s greatest achievement is in deciding not to anthropomorphize his subjects. He strives to capture not only how we view animals but how animals view us. Many of the final scenes are from inside the cages of the creatures, or from a distance that allows the viewer to observe both the park visitors and the animals in a single frame. The clinical images of cinematographer Vincent Biron are uniquely utilised by his director to create a testament to the individuality of animals but there is also a melancholy. These beasts live a compromised life and Bestiaire raises questions as to whether mankind’s best intentions justify the sacrifices they have unwittingly made.

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