A scene from the documentary "Bestiaire." (Funfilm Distribution )
In "Bestiaire," a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté set amid an animal park in Quebec, viewers watch as all manner of exotic creatures are fed and cared for, hustled from their interior shelters to the out-of-doors. Their human minders are unseen at first, and emerge only through Côté's careful balancing act between an instinctive world and one of human intervention.
The film has a meditative calm about it — there are only a few murmured words of French but nothing that could be called dialogue — with also some underlying tension, because as you look at the animals, they so often look back, their inscrutable consciousness both placid and unyielding. Any description of the film likely makes it sound drier and more rigorous than it actually is; whether one is an animal lover or not, the chance to in essence sit with these animals as if up close and in their pens is remarkable and engaging.
PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments
Côté, working with cinematographer Vincent Biron and editor Nicolas Roy, has a real sense of wit in how he constructs the images, such as when he cuts from animals being fed to an attendant crunching into an apple. The camera doesn't move, and the compositions are masterful, changing perspective from shot to shot in a rich, magnificent way.
A sequence in the film involving a taxidermist at work is oddly not off-putting in relation to the living creatures, not least because the glassy stare of the stuffed animals brings into relief just how full of life the zoo animals still are, even in captivity. Then, once the park is opened for guests, with their strollers and cameras and pointing fingers, the meditative quiet seems somehow ruptured, yet also not gone. We may interact with the natural world and even in some way be a part of it, but what Côté seems to be really looking at is how we are never its true master. We may hold the keys to the gate, but that doesn't put us in charge.
"Bestiaire" is being presented in a week-long run at the Cinefamily as part of a program with two short films, Nicolas Provost's "Moving Stories" and Rachel Mayeri's "Primate Cinema: Apes as Family."
Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Playing: At the Cinefamily
PHOTOS AND MORE
VIDEO: The making of 'Argo,' 'Les Miz' and more
ENVELOPE: The latest awards buzz
PHOTOS: NC-17 movies: Ratings explained