By Catherine Jessica Beed

In the opening sequence of Bestiaire, three artists sketch a doe, slowly revealed to be dead and stuffed. The differing ways they focus on recreating the animal, one outlining, one laying the foundation for texture over form, initially coaxes a thoughtful introspection, that each of us in one moment viewing the same thing will always differ in our interests and perceptions of what we are seeing. A mantra many artists use is ‘draw what you see, not what you think you see’, the two ways of seeing are the same but can be vastly divergent. That mantra offers an interesting insight into the opening of Denis Côté‘s film, in regards to our experiences of seeing and recording what we see, and in establishing that us as voyeurs watching other human beings contemplating the body of an animal is in itself unsettling and conflicting. What do we think we’re seeing and what do we see? Perhaps Côté’s film goes a way into exploring that question in connection to our encounters and relationships with animals.

The stillness of winter. Static vision. What follows is a group of striking shots, positioned and framed with elegant attention, revealing to us living breathing animals of different species against man-made backdrops, their organic forms in brilliant detail like wonders in motion against the mundane. We are well aware that the animals exist within a human landscape here; the fences and gates are prominent lines and objects in each shot. The contrasts between these structures and the natural, the overcast skies and the animals wandering in and out of the frames of their own accord or pacing up and down at a fence, are quite beautiful in their openness. The diegetic sound is stark, clear, and we are invited to contemplate.

Denis Côté said of this film: «I started out with a naive desire to explore certain energies and to observe the relations or maybe even the failed encounters between humans and animals. In the end, this film is about contemplation — and something else. Something indefinable, something more obscure which I hope to find out more about with the help of the audience.»

The startling shapes of the beasts’ horns against the walls and fences are both familiar and bizarre. Perhaps an audience is used to seeing animals in such places as zoos or farms, but it is not often we are allowed to contemplate the animals as closely and as quietly, to think about how they relate to us whether in our surroundings or to us as human beings. We are allowed to explore the “certain energies” Côté is exploring, and the film is a fascinating observation.

Côté does not tell us what species we are seeing. At times they begin to seem like abstractions: erratic and unpredictable movements against an entirely predictable backdrop, the sudden frantic movements of the zebra running in its pen, or the ostrich’s wondrous head coming curiously into view against a rigid background.

Humans slowly come into the picture. There are moments where we are watching the humans watching the animals and it’s a strange experience brought on by the contemplative first half of the film, to be so engrossed with the animals themselves and then to watch ourselves observing them.

The film seems to provoke ideas about humanity’s gaze and in that sense it becomes a film about perception. We are gazing at ourselves gazing at and analysing the animals in our own environments. We are our basic perception of the voyeur. In turn the animals stare right back at us.

In an unsettling scene, Côté shows us a taxidermy workshop. The uneasiness of seeing so many animal skulls, animals resembling the ones previously seen alive and in motion, their heads on the wall, eyes deadened, recalls the opening sequence, and introduces another form of our fascinations with animals, how they are different to us. Even in death we are confounded and curious with their bodies. We cage them, stuff them and want to keep them. Do we, as animals ourselves, fail in our tried encounters?

This scene is contrasted in the next few shots with luscious greenery where animals are roaming, very much alive. The fences are small and distant, the trees and tall grass taking up most of the frame, and the animals are lively and beautiful, and maybe here it becomes a celebration of their beauty.

Whether we see what we think we see here, abstract the images or simply see what is in front of us, it is our decision to make. Côté’s film makes no judgements, instead it is a form of contemplation in itself, and we are completely involved, both as an audience and as humanity.

Director: Denis Côté
Writer: Denis Côté
Producers: Sylvain Corbeil, Denis Côté
Cinematographer: Vincent Biron
72 min