Thousands of people visit Quebec’s Parc Safari every year looking to experience some sort of connection with the wild animals living in a frosty facsimile of their natural habitats, but none has brought the haunting mix of curiosity and compassion that Denis Cote so enigmatically captures in “Bestiaire.” Serving up artfully framed, static-camera compositions of the animals within their mismatched environs, Cote’s actuality-style catalog of context-free tableaux invites auds to free-associate with the scenes put before them. Highbrow champs will be vital in attracting crowds as this brief yet slow-building visual essay makes the fest and institutional programming rounds.
A return to the formal rigor of Cote’s semi-documentary “Carcasses,” as opposed to an extension of his populist sports pic “Curling,” “Bestiaire” engages with the mystery of how and why mankind studies other creatures. Cote takes his title from a form of compendium, popular in the Middle Ages, that paired elaborate illustrations of various animals with religiously inflected moral lessons.
The film opens by showing a group of artists sketching something, gradually revealed to be a stuffed deer. Cote cleverly withholds the object of their attention, focusing instead on the artists’ faces and eventually their various drawings. The effect suggests the parable of the blind men and the elephant, in which each describes a different animal according to the part he touches; likewise, Cote anticipates a wide variety of personal reactions to the fragmented visuals he supplies, providing images while relying on auds to find their own meaning.
Moving next into the holding pens where the Hemmingford-based Parc Safari contains its animals, the film reveals the depressing jail-like cells used after visiting hours are over. When the time is right, doors open and the animals are encouraged to go out into pens with grass and trees, giving the public a false sense of where the animals spend most of their time. Though staff members are regularly seen caring for the animals, a sense of profound loneliness and agitation accompanies most of these portraits, with sounds filling out what the frame omits. At times, the camera reveals only horns or legs, demanding a certain amount of imagination to fill in the rest. The same goes for animal behavior, upon which people will inevitably project very different interpretations.
Humans play the most prominent role in a mid-movie section featuring what appears to be an onsite taxidermy team, who transform the facility’s fallen captives into permanent fixtures. Watching this work is as grisly a prospect as playing fly-on-the-wall at a slaughterhouse, characterized by broken bones and power tools in a film with no score or nondiegetic sound design. As if by magic, a lifeless duck achieves a kind of immortality through the process, reborn into a perfectly realistic stuffed duck for the benefit of lookie-loos.
Visuals of the animals in the open air will look familiar to anyone who has ever visited a zoo, since the art of removing animals from their respective homes and relocating them to satisfy humans’ desire for exotic spectatorship has shifted away from cages in recent decades. Now imagine leaping forward a century: What will future auds make of this practice?
In some ways, the film’s biggest limitation is that it limits the inquiry to one facility. Most unsettling are the images focusing on the amusement aspect of Parc Safari’s operations. Cote depicts herds of humans passing through the park in bumper-to-bumper traffic; they have come to ogle the animals, though more than an hour spent scrutinizing the big, glossy eyes of various beasts reveals the creatures to be every bit as interested in understanding humans.