Monday, January 30, 2012

Sundance ’12: Bestiaire

Zoos, farms, and taxidermy shops are good places for gawking at animals. French Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté essentially invites viewers to do precisely that. Supposedly, the clever part is that the animals will gawk back. However, they do not seem particularly interested in holding up their end throughout his non-narrative documentary Bestiaire (trailer here), which screened as a New Frontier selection of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Côté’s title is derived from the medieval bestiaries, which evoke images of lavish illustrations on gilt-edged illuminated pages. He takes rather the opposite approach, de-emphasizing the exoticism of the animals, focusing instead on the drabness of their surroundings. Unlike recent animal documentaries, such as the Jouberts’ Last Lions, Nick Stringer’s Turtle: the Incredible Journey, and even Nicholas Philibert’s Nenette (a film much closer akin to Bestiaire in terms of tone), Côté discourages attempts to impose individual personalities on the animals by framing them from off-kilter perspectives and completely eschewing mood setting soundtrack music.

A considerable portion of Bestiaire was shot at Quebec’s Parc Safari, whose animal handlers are likely to stoke the zeal of anti-zoo protestors with their dispassionate professionalism. Indeed, Bestiaire could almost be considered an expose for people who really need films to be about something. Regardless, less adventurous viewers will be decidedly uncomfortable during the sort-of observational doc.

If you want to learn something about the process of taxidermy, Bestiaire eventually delivers the goods. On the other hand, if you want to get to know some of the beasts, Côté will deliberately undercut any such attempts. There is no question the filmmaker accomplishes exactly what he set out to do. Yet, it remains wholly fair to ask “so what?” Probably more interesting as a concept than as a viewing experience, Bestiaire was definitely for the New Frontier track die-hards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.