Some people have a low threshold for “slow” cinema. Not me; I’m a fan of minimalism on film — but not for its own sake. I don’t want to watch mud dry, unless it’s part of an Andy Goldsworthy exhibit.
I chose to watch Bestiaire because I knew it was a narratorless documentary (again, a favorite style of mine) shot at an animal park in Quebec. I hoped it would pair well with Frederick Wiseman’s direct-cinema documentary called Zoo.
By the third and fourth scenes (depending how you count), director Denis Côté had lost me. The third scene is a shot of bison, outdoors, in some sort of enclosure. They mill about for a minute or so. The next minute-long shot stares at the top halves of some horses, deliberately framed so that we only see parts of their bodies, as they mill about in front of a tin wall.
Several things bugged me about these scenes. First, they aren’t inherently interesting. The bison and the horses aren’t doing anything interesting, and there’s no apparent reason why the shots started or ended when they did. Second, they aren’t put into an interesting context. The scenes before and after don’t indicate whether we should feel sorry for the trapped animals, or in awe of their power, or afraid for their safety. They are just random shots.
Finally, by deliberately framing the shots so that the animals are mostly out of frame, Côté (or is it cinematographer Vincent Biron) calls attention to himself. It would seem that the primary point of not narrating your documentary is to make yourself mostly invisible. You give more power to your images when you take yourself out of the equation. But you violate that aesthetic when you call attention to yourself with a framing that is too unusual.
Bestiaire never won me back. Its last chance was the final shot of the film. A good last shot should, I think, convey a strong sense of what the movie was about; it should recall the opening shot and make the whole film seem more coherent than an assembled collection of shots. But it didn’t. It was an interesting shot — an elephant starts ambling toward some approaching white vehicles. The shot says something about the relationship between the humans who run the Quebec safari and the animals who live there. But it doesn’t resonate with the art students sketching the stuffed deer in the opening scene.
There are some powerful scenes — not just shots, but whole scenes — in the middle of the film. Lions and tigers smack at the doors of their indoor cages in what seems like psychotic frustration. The echoing clang repeats endlessly in a soul-crushing soundscape. Then we cut to Zebras who are tense in their indoor enclosure, and in the distance we can hear the clang of the lions and tigers, along with the occasional wildcat roar. If the soundscape is tense for a human audience, imagine how tense it must be for the natural prey of the lions. And then, after these scenes, the film moves outside, as though spring has come and finally allowed the animals to roam a little wider. Those are the kinds of scenes that I love — they don’t require a narrator, yet they tell an interesting story if you only pay a little attention.
But considering Bestiaire ‘s entire running time, it fails to live up to my ideal of a minimalist movie. Instead of rewarding your patience, it too often tries your patience. I think I would rather see Frederick Wiseman’s Zoo again.