The only real human interaction or notable presence in Denis Cote’s artful look at animals Bestiaire comes in the opening scene as range of human eyes focus on animals in the middle of an art course. It sets up this simple, but gorgeously shot and surprisingly zen-like 72 minute experience perfectly. Cote trains the viewer’s eyes early almost in the same way someone teaching meditation would tell their charge to slowly relax. It’s a nature film devoid of any sort of dramatization or arc, and in many ways it showcases how genuine the approach can be.
There’s no plot. No narration. No context. All there is are long looks at animals in a zoo-like compound in winter. The viewer has to provide their own context and decide how much they wish to pull from every frame of the film. It’s up to their eyes what sort of interpretation they wish to place on the film.
It could end up boring the easily distracted or people expecting an offshoot from the Discovery Channel, but that’s almost the point Cote seems determined to make. He’s not letting someone else speak for the animals; he’s letting them (not) speak for themselves. Every encounter with an animal feels perfectly timed to act as sort of a one on one dialogue between man (the audience) and beast. It’s a cinematic journey that’s easy to give into when looks into the eyes of these creatures and sees all the humanity that’s there for the offering. Through that, it also serves as an effective tool for viewers to question the conditions they are seeing on screen.
It’s somewhat disingenuous to say that viewers will only get what they give when it comes to Bestiaire, but Cote isn’t really asking for a lot. It’s not unlike a picture book or a guided art exhibition. It’s oddly calming and well paced for something of this nature, reaffirming Cote’s status as one of Canada’s leading cinematic craftsmen. It’s calming and transcendent and in complete opposition to the types of nature shows we’ve grown accustomed to.