Animals have been used to teach moral lessons since Aesop; the medieval bestiary, from which Denis Côté’s absorbing documentary takes its name, presented an illustrated compendium of creatures serving as allegorical figures. Quadrupeds have inspired lofty sentiments from writers for nearly as long. Elizabeth Barrett Browning once extolled her pets as “love without speech”; Ted Hughes praised animals’ wisdom, declaring they “know something special.” Yet despite our closeness to and fascination with these mute creatures, they remain ultimately unknowable. Anchoring Anthology’s Côté retrospective, Bestiaire reveals the limits of interspecies comprehension.
Opened 40 years ago, the Parc Safari in Hemmingford, Quebec, is, per its website, home to 500 animals of 75 different species; its goal is to “protect and preserve endangered species as well as educate our visitors about them, while creating a unique city of recreation, fun, and environmental awareness for the whole family.” Shot there over the course of several months, Bestiaire captures this mission statement in action—while gently suggesting its absurdity—with shots of a mother and her three kids atop an elephant lumbering through a copse, cars slowly drifting past grazing zebras, a woman stepping into the ursine zoo-mascot costume, a teenage employee at the Skee-Ball station.
Yet the nearly wordless Bestiaire is, most profoundly, about the dynamics of looking, an exercise in studying gazes that are either unidirectional or, superficially, at least, reciprocated. Côté’s film opens with a handful of art students intently staring at and sketching a taxidermied small mammal. Is it some kind of mini-antelope? That I, a fan of the four-footed, could not identify the names of many of the creatures in Bestiaire would seem to prove the point that the English Marxist critic John Berger makes about the marginalization of animals in his influential 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals?”; the treatise’s title itself seems to be the starting point for Côté’s film.
The object of intense scrutiny, the stuffed cloven-hoofed creature in the first scene will stare into a void in perpetuity. What, though, is seen by the animals still very much alive? Like Nicolas Philibert’s documentary Nénette (2010), about the star-attraction orangutan at a Paris zoo, Bestiaire exposes the mechanics of a strange, multi-layered voyeurism: watching animals watch—or, more accurately, look past—those who gape at them. As Berger writes: “At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunised to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.”
During the unsettling moments when the Parc Safari’s inhabitants do stare directly into Côté’s camera, it’s hard not to ascribe emotional freight to the exchange: to feel guilty, complicit, responsible for the penning in (and worse) of these sentient beings. Yet this surfeit of feeling is self-serving and ultimately pointless. If ancient Greek fables of the tortoise and the hare, the lion and the mouse have served as ethical instruction for humans for thousands of years, Bestiaire suggests why we have turned animals into allegories in the first place: as a way of exercising control over living things that will remain forever outside our grasp.