Bestiaire (Cote, 2012)

My Mom once told me that as a kid she used to sit for hours watching animals and insects in their natural habitats; ants crawling in and out of their holes, a flock of deer grazing in a meadow. Denis Cote’s experimental documentary relies on this same observational poetry to examine what can only be described as the antithetical experience of viewing animals in their pure state: the modern zoo.

Despite the fact that this is a film about barriers and bars, the nature of watching, waiting, examining, noticing patterns of movement, relishing the silence of a given moment, Cote establishes a sense of freedom and improvisation within the cramped spaces and static compositions. Certain shots feel like thematic hand grenades: Zebras butting up against a metal enclosure, their angry cries and loud banging echoing the horrific and protracted violence of captivity. Then there’s the monkey paws sticking through chain link fence, glimpses of life and texture and fur protruding from a seemingly infinite man-made structure. Also, the bobbing head of an Ostrich in close up, its unpredictable physicality coming in and out of the frame, uncontrollable within a given space, by either the zoo or cinema.

This is a very special work, one that is both a celebration of the animal kingdom’s endurance and an indictment of man’s penchant for snuffing out the beauty of natural uncertainty for artificial pleasure.

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