Directed by Denis Côté. STC. 72 min. Opens Dec. 7 at the Royal.
The omission of Bestiaire from the industry-selected Canada’s Top Ten list is curious, to say the least. Denis Côté’s wondrous and mostly wordless essay film, which premiered to rave reviews in Sundance and Berlin before showing at TIFF, is arguably the most technically accomplished title in this year’s homegrown crop. It’s a beautifully photographed and edited study of a Quebecois safari-park and its various furry andfour-legged inhabitants. Call it We Shot a Zoo.
Before any of the beasts appear, however, Côté and cinematographer Vincent Biron introduce some human subjects—art students in a life-drawing class sketching a stuffed animal. It’s a striking opening, establishing a one-way viewing relationship between the watchful artists and their lifeless model. When the action shifts to the safari park, however, the gaze of the patrons—and the camera—gets returned with a vengeance. Côté’s menagerie of zebras, rhinos, and lions are given extended close-ups that eventually make us feel like we’re the ones being watched.
The film’s boldest stroke is the total absence of any voice-over commentary to place things in context. While many nature documentaries attempt to fill in the blanks about what animals might be thinking, Bestiaire lets the camera’s encounters with the creatures play out in silence. The effect is simultaneously uncomfortable and hypnotic.
As in his acclaimed fiction features, Côté’s talent for striking imagery is matched by his ability to work though complicated themes. A scene of a taxidermist at work is clearly meant as a commentary on the very process of representation the movie is engaged with. What makes Bestiaire remarkable is the way it consistently provides visual and intellectual stimulation. To put it bluntly, there weren’t 10 other movies this year—and certainly not 10 Canadian ones—that can make the same claim.