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Tomas Hachard: Denis Côté’s Animal Instincts

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October 22, 2012

Bestiaire's place in the filmmaker’s oeuvre and anthropomorphic conceptions.

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Image from Flickr via smileham

By Tomas Hachard

The Animal in Us

If you ask about the animals in Bestiaire—Denis Côté’s mostly wordless documentary made up of long shots of lions, tigers, and bears; giraffes, cows, and elephants—I could tell you about the sizable, crested crane who, extending his grand, black-and-white, left wing, and popping his long neck up and down, produces a dance that hearkens back to the first few seconds of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” performance at the 1983 Motown 25th anniversary celebration. I could say that by turns the animals look bored, angry, frustrated, anxious, patient, curious, and perplexed. I could mention the group of lions and tigers that rattle and bang against their cages like prisoners prior to a jailhouse riot.

Bestiaire is the Canadian director’s sixth feature film (most of which are showing at the Anthology Films Archives this week) and by far his most visually resplendent. It is also a remarkably simple film compared to many of his previous works, which often call attention to their counterintuitive structures (2009’s Carcasses and 2007’s Our Private Lives) or combine documentary and narrative elements into a hybrid form (Carcasses and 2005’s Drifting States). Like the medieval illustrated catalogues of the animal kingdom it takes its name from, Côté’s film has a picture book quality to it, though it does away with the Christian allegories that accompanied the images in the Middle Ages.

Côté’s animals don’t do anything. They don’t travel across continents, commit incredible, David Attenborough-approved feats of bravery, or chase down prey with reckless abandon. They just sit there. Sometimes they eat.

Beginning in an artist’s loft before moving to Quebec’s Parc Safari and a taxidermy studio, Bestiaire breaks with narrative completely and offers a pure visual experience: a marvel of strikingly framed, still shots. When mixed with the frenetic motion of their subjects, the images can take on a musical nature; an ostrich’s head will pop in and out of the frame like a brief melody, repeating over the rustling of the wind and rumbling of nearby workers in the background. Other times, when Côté captures an animal in stasis—a bull, for example, whose curved horns wrap elegantly up and over his ears—a close-up captures the beautiful symmetry of its features.

Bestiaire is far from Planet Earth, in which time-lapse photography and British narration connect us intimately to the wonders of Mother Earth. For one thing, Côté’s animals aren’t free, though their keepers appear to care for them. But more significantly, Côté’s animals don’t do anything. They don’t travel across continents, commit incredible, David Attenborough-approved feats of bravery, or chase down prey with reckless abandon. They just sit there. Sometimes they eat.

Bestiaire’s silence, visual style, and beauty leaves you awestruck. What the film doesn’t do is explicitly promote anthropomorphism; in fact, Côté has written that he filmed Bestiaire in opposition to precisely that tendency in nature films. So it’s against his will that the film incites such a reaction anyway and in droves. One of the first animals we see, a llama pacing by the edge of his enclosure in the middle of winter, might be warding off the cold, anxiously awaiting his next meal, or perhaps it’s wondering why suddenly no one comes to visit anymore.

Bestiaire inspires stories about its animals, though, while simultaneously undercutting our admiration for the animal kingdom. And this skepticism puts the documentary in thematic-sync with the rest of Côté’s films, which explore how the basest, perhaps most bestial of human impulses intrude upon ordered, civilized life.

***

Côté’s films prior to Bestiaire are set outside modern, urban life, in assorted towns around Quebec: places where people escape to, places where expired junk goes to rest, places so stifling that residents yearn to run away, but also places where rebirth might be possible.

These locations border idyllic natural surroundings, but the towns are never entirely disconnected. Drifting States, for example, takes place in Radisson, Quebec, a 400-person town dedicated primarily to, as one local puts it, taming the La Grande River in order to run a hydroelectric power station. In the film—Côté’s first that mixes documentary and fiction—Christian LeBlanc arrives in Radisson to a wary welcome, though that has nothing to do with the fact that he has just suffocated his comatose mother, who he has been caring for in his apartment. (Out of pity? selfishness? It’s not clear.)

The isolated settings of Côté’s stories also serve as hiding places for a mix of characters: the endearingly eccentric Jean-Paul Colmor in Carcasses, whose home in rural Quebec functions as a scrap yard filled with used cars and nourishes his joyful, secluded life; also the more troubled Jean-François in Curling (2010), who fears the evil influences outside of his home so much that he refuses to let his 12 year-old daughter Julyvonne go to school or barely leave the house.

All That She Wants (2008), Côté’s most compelling narrative film, details, in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the corruption of a one-road town. The sound of cars speeding by on the nearby rural highway occasionally overtakes the otherwise dominant wind chimes and buzzing bugs. Meanwhile, in town, a passing vehicle generally only means trouble. The resident small-time gangsters and pimps have no real power, but their fights over who gets to rule over two tracts of farmland causes no less pain than if they did.

Côté’s films feature plenty of bodies and a constant threat of violence, though little of it takes place on-screen. Muted beginnings slowly reveal an increasing sense of dread. Curling’s story about desolate small-town life turns dark as corpses begin to pop up around town and the depressed Jean-François sinks deeper into paranoia. Similarly, both Carcasses and Our Private Lives, Côté’s first purely narrative film, take dramatic shifts in tone halfway through when violent intrusions shatter the physical and spiritual tranquility of its characters’ lives.

Each of Côté’s films prior to Bestiaire runs up against the limits of human control. Characters move away from civilization and its constraints, closer to nature, self-reliance, love, even redemption–basic desires. But in the seeming safety of isolation they also come up against our most base, uncontrollable impulses—violence, fear, paranoia, and betrayal. Occurring so far from regular modern life, so close to more natural vistas, it’s tempting to chalk it all up to animal nature. Watching the artificiality and banality of nature in Bestiaire, however, puts into question whether these darker elements of our behavior are, in fact, animalistic.

***

In his Harper’s cover story about the history and development of the Bronx zoo, David Samuels writes about a recent study by ecologist Eric Sanderson, titled “The Human Footprint and the Last of the Wild.” Sanderson and his colleagues argue that “the earth has become a functional extension of humankind.” In this new world, Samuels explains, “we should properly understand nature as a sequence of enclosures like parks and zoos that provide their inhabitants with graduated levels of protection from toxins, diseases, and other man-made threats. The yearning for contact with a nature that exists outside ourselves, like the desire for love, may be hard-wired into our brains, a fossilized remnant of a prior stage of human evolution that no longer helps us navigate the world in which we live.”

Bestiaire fits Samuels’ vision. The nature it displays exists only in captivity and, more importantly, has been defrocked: there is nothing grand about it. When the majesty of nature does emerge halfway through film, it does so morbidly in a taxidermy studio where animals have their feathers brushed and their postures perfected, with the help of metal wires stuck down their spine, so they can forever rest in glorious action amid fake landscapes that show off their best features.

Taxidermy studios seem closely related to human funeral homes, but in Bestiaire you realize that they have as much connection to life and death as a wax museum. Animals here are not just made pretty; they are manufactured into their ideal natural form and gazed upon by those who want to see an imagined glory of nature crystallized.

Anthropomorphism works to hasten the steady disappearance of animals from modern human life. Animals take on human traits that eclipse and render null their own behavior.

Zoos, Samuels writes, “offer a measure of relief from the knowledge that nature is only another man-made illusion.” Côté is less forgiving. He has little time for the free, wondrous, and unencumbered beauty displayed in most nature documentaries. What he sees conforms best to what John Berger saw in his 1977 essay, “Why Look at Animals”: beasts that “have nothing to act upon—except, briefly, supplied food and, very occasionally—a supplied mate;” animals that have assumed “an otherwise exclusively human attitude–indifference.”

***

So why, while watching Bestiaire, do we still impose human characteristics on the banal behavior of animals who pay no mind to humans who aren’t providing them food, causing them pain, or, in this case, filming them? For Berger, anthropomorphism works to hasten the steady disappearance of animals from modern human life. Animals take on human traits that eclipse and render null their own behavior. As Berger writes: “The vulture as landlord is more dreadfully rapacious than he is as a bird. The crocodiles at dinner are greedier at the table than they are in the river.”

Samuels, however, points out another type of anthropomorphic delusion that, counter-intuitively, requires keeping animals somewhat separate from ourselves. In this case, animals take on human traits so that humans can relate to a particular part of animal experience. “Employing the familiar techniques of Saturday-morning cartoons,” Samuels writes, “zoos use anthropomorphic logic and illusion to maintain the link between a love of animals and the desire to escape the evils that men inflict on both animals and their fellow human beings. Zoos promise us a refuge from the horrors engraved in the hearts of men.”

A similar impulse reveals itself when we imagine what animal we would transform into if we had the choice–a desire similar to a longing for childhood innocence, with the difference that, as animals, we would not have to worry about growing up. Short of Neverland, there’s nothing sweeter.

With Bestiaire, then, Côté may have produced a veritable work of escapism, at least in relation to his own work. The film, so different from his others in structure and style, calls attention to itself mostly by the absence of humans. And as go the humans, so goes the dread. Until now, it seemed that Côté was exploring how to keep the menace of animal nature from intruding into our lives. Côté’s characters seemed to encounter an underside of human behavior—one that made isolation dangerous. Yet it’s also clear that in the films, these darker elements arise only from how humans treat each other, from how they breach ethical lines they know ought not to be crossed. After Bestiaire, this human underbelly no longer seems so “animalistic.” Either we are now more brutish than the animals we have tamed and sequestered, or the origin is distinctly human.

Tomas Hachard is a film critic for Slant and The L Magazine. He has also written for NPR, the Rumpus, and the Millions. Follow him on Twitter @thachard.

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