Editor’s note: With Bestiaire hitting limited release, here is a re-run of our Berlin Film Festival review, originally published on February 15, 2012.

Before the screening of Bestiaire, writer/director/producer Denis Côté relayed a story about an audience member who approached him at Sundance and told him that she felt like the movie was less about animals and more “a movie about an audience watching a movie.” Even without planting the seed of this idea, it would have become obvious within a few minutes of watching the semi-staged documentary. It has an eerie ability to make you aware that you’re in an audience watching something, yet it does so magically without taking you out of the movie. The surrounding people are more obvious, but the images up on the screen are still transfixing.

The simple way to describe this convention-bucking flick is that it’s a little over an hour of animals. That alone makes it watchable, but the brilliance of the project is in its more complex description: a film composed entirely of sequential static shots of wild beasts and humans watching or caring for wild beasts that shines a spotlight on observation and fine art.

After all, there’s a coffee table quality to the imagery here. Côté has an uncanny eye for framing shots – almost always delivering an interesting focal point in the background to anchor the never-centered animals in the foreground. Then again, it’s not like giraffes or water buffalo give a handful of pellets about the Rule of Thirds so even if he’d perfectly aligned the shots, they’d be changed in an instant by an unpredictable shift of the hooves. The result is a flip book that could hang in a modern art museum.

On display are a drawing course with a stuffed figure in the center, a taxidermist mounting a duck, and a whole host of animals and people in a safari park. It’s a window into human/animal interactions that’s both gorgeous and meaningful.

Surprisingly, it’s also funny. Those moments might be due to editor Nicolas Roy and the director who have keen eyes for scenario even when it solely involves the movements of creatures. In one sequence, an alpaca walks oddly back and forth along a fence line before the face of another alpaca (the one we didn’t even know was there…) emerges right up against the lens, makes rutting noises and disappears back. So, alright, it doesn’t sound hilarious written out, but it’s funny on screen. Not in an America’s Funniest Videos way, but in the way that animals are naturally bizarre and humorously captivating. They make weird sounds, they make weird movements, and Roy is there with the timing to make it all work.

The film can also be tense – an emotion delivered in a shot of zebras uncomfortably closed up in a pen. Sweet, dangerous, majestic. It’s an entire range peppered in the long stretches of meditative photography.

Which brings up a sticky point. How is anyone supposed to review something that defies so many filmmaking rules? A statement like “The shot of the ostrich went on for a few seconds too long,” seems absurd on its face. What’s more, while the three environments are separated, it’s also difficult to know whether or how the movie would be different had the elephants come before the antelope or after the shot of the zookeeper eating an apple. The shot order seems almost arbitrary, meaning (among other things) that it could have gone on for hours and still managed to entertain and confound. In light of all this, Côté may have made something so experiential that it makes this writing pointless.

Then again, the joy in the picture is in its safety net. Without all the eye-of-the-beholder profundity, the movie still includes a bunch of incredible shots of truly fascinating beings. Even with its poetry stripped away, it’s still a thing of beauty. Plus, some of the shots are engaging the same way a trip to the zoo is; you don’t want to look away from the tiger cage because the magnificent big cat might do something breathtaking as soon as you do. Fortunately, Côté delivers the goods so it’s like visiting the animal sanctuary at peak hours.

Consider this the arthouse version of a Disneynature project. Bestiaire shuns the typical view of nature documentaries and manages something artful and new.  It’s cautious and reflective, but it still celebrates the eclectic rhythm of animal life in captivity and in human hands. Just know that when you stare at the projected image of the beasts, it’s going to feel a hell of a lot like they’re staring back at you.

Grade: A

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