It's tempting to call Denis Cote's Bestiaire "contemplative." Its unscored 72 minutes of footage — of animals, caretakers and patrons at Quebec's Parc Safari — certainly leave a lot of room for thought.
But the film doesn't do much of the thinking for you; it juxtaposes images, frames small processes and repetitive actions, but provides very little narrative or even context. The droning pace of the images and natural sounds is defiantly mundane. There's none of the bedazzled majesty of an IMAX nature film, nor the visceral brusqueness of a politicized document of animal cruelty.
Bestiaire is simply a long, steady stare into the faces of several animals and people. Composed mostly of static shots set in and around the Parc's animal habitats, the film takes its time capturing the rhythms of animal life in captivity. The camera appears to catch the attention of various creatures, and we watch them glare and sniffle and tramp through snow as if we were present. In other scenes, the animals are more active, as with a sequence where zebras gallop frantically around their enclosure.
The role of humans — the caretakers as well as the patrons of the Parc — is rendered as curiously passive, matching the animals in monotonous simplicity. Employees pursue their regular work, couples and kids look on at the animals, people photograph zebras from their fittingly black and white and gray cars. However, two extended sequences complicate the relationship between the captive animals and their human cohabitants.
In the film's opening moments, a group of people — apparently a drawing class — painstakingly observes and draws an unseen subject. Before we ever see the subject itself — a taxidermied animal — we see it as interpreted by a member of the class, in the form of a sketch. This sequence has more edits than most of the animal-focused segments, and sets up a kind of anxiety of spectatorship: We are watching the watchers, but we don't yet know what they're seeing. It's in stark contrast to the directness of the rest of the film.
Another sequence, as mundane in its presentation of process as any of the less busy animal scenes, follows a taxidermist through the process of stuffing a bird for display. This is the closest the movie gets to visceral; it's like something from Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death with all the punch removed. There's no obvious comment or criticism built into the images — it's just a man, going about his business.
But whether the camera follows humans or other animals, the focus is on inaction or nervous, automatic action. No one is performing for the camera, talking to the camera or the filmmakers. Yes, the animals sometimes acknowledge the camera, but they are largely occupied with the consuming business of being animals — pacing, snorting and so on.
There's a compulsion to describe a film with such a slow and unusual pace as poetic — it already has a Netflix blurb calling it "lyrical" — but Bestiaire's best quality is its unpretentiousness. For the most part, it shows exactly what it shows, so that when even the simplest cinematic mediation insinuates itself, it feels a bit like poetry — or conceptual magic.