Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Bestiaire

After a run of fairly conventional movies (you know, with characters and dialogue and plots and stuff) at this year’s Film Festival it was about time I found myself in front of something defiantly odd, and I’m pleased to report that Denis Côté’s (ahem) photoessay Bestiaire fits the bill handsomely. Except that on a purely surface level it’s not odd at all. In fact it’s possibly the most straightforward thing I’ve ever seen in a cinema, being composed entirely of static and often quite lengthy shots of the animals in a Canadian zoo. There’s no voice-over, no subtitles, no human language of any kind in fact other than one or two indistinct snatches of zoo staff talking to each other in the background and one close-up of someone answering a phone and saying “it’s for you”. And there’s certainly nothing so crass as a music soundtrack.

Now I’m not one to be fazed by this kind of thing (regular readers will be aware of my admiration of the eight opening shot of cows milling around in Béla Tarr’s bum-aching masterpiece Sátántangó), and I actually found the early section of the film showing various horned beasts killing time in their snowy paddocks quite soothing, although part of me was wishing I’d remembered to bring some ironing along to give me something to do. Subtly though the mood changes as the scene shifts indoors to metal enclosures and you start to sense the animals’ unease as ominous sounds filter subtly into the soundtrack. Nothing untoward happens other than some routine examinations and clearing out of pens but the suggestion of encroaching menace reminiscent of a concentration camp or abattoir is remarkably achieved, and with no tricks. It’s all in the mise-en-scene: careful framing, often of only the legs or head of an animal, the length that shots are held, the editing. I guess you could call it an example of pure cinema. You certainly feel like you’re getting uncanny access to the zoo inmate’s inner thoughts.

The rest of the film carries on in this manner which is ostensibly as dry and deadpan as possible, but actually gets you going through a surprising range of emotions. The feeding of the bears and the ungainliness of the ostriches are funny (admittedly, you can’t go wrong with ostriches if you’re looking for an easy laugh), the big cats dozing on glass walkways above gawping tourists are incongruous and threatening and a sequence showing a taxidermist at work preparing and stuffing a bird is fascinating and sinister, not least for the fact that among the various trophy heads adorning his work place there’s also a pin-up of two girls in bikinis. All of this could have easily been sensationalised and thus trivialised by the use of an over-expository commentary – Côté’s happy to let the footage stand unadorned and it’s much more effective as the result. Weirdly what Bestiaire reminds me most of is Hunger, Steve McQueen’s austere and similarly effective depiction of the life of convicted IRA men in the cells of the Maze prison, which also largely played out in a series of silent tableaus. It seems that sometimes words just aren’t what’s needed.

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