The tourist attraction Parc Safari bills itself as “Africa in the heart of Quebec.” When experienced through the contemplative observation of Denis Côté’s documentary “Bestiaire” that’s a description that defies reality. You see enough jungle animals penned up or drifting in the cold to appreciate that Parc Safari, for a lot of the year, is the opposite of Africa. The film treats the zoo experience with piquant morality. The park gathers natural wonders and houses them unnaturally.
We gaze at the animals, the animal gaze back. But the watching isn’t quite equal. Working with the cinematographer Vincent Biron, Côté, a fine Canadian filmmaker, views the animals, their holding facilities, their human caretakers, and the paying visitors with a watchfulness that’s always exquisitely framed (ostriches in extreme close-ups; giraffes photographed against aluminum siding) even as a cruelty accompanies that beauty. Take the zebras. They live much of the time in a small stall; and when they’re restless they ram their walls, wanting to run but unable to. Or the lion who bangs at the gate that keeps him in. The banging persists as Côté furnishes a shot of the lock and of a worker whose gaze is fixed off to her right as the camera watches her straight on (she’s literally looking the other way).
The images are meant to accumulate shame, and they do. But they also might be too much. The irony of African animals in Canadian climes seems indictment enough. Traditionally, a bestiary was a collection of writings meant to approximate, metaphorically or symbolically, the lives of animals. Sometimes the tale carried a moral. That appears to be Côté’s loose aim. But his movie strives for objectivity, too. It opens with an art class sketching taxidermied animals then spends a stretch in the studio of an artist who, with meticulous love, creates them. When he’s finished a dead duck appears to live again.
“Bestiaire” follows a handful of magnificent recent movies — “Sweetgrass,” “La Quattro Volta,” “Nenette” — that have managed to locate thoughtfulness and spirituality among members of the animal kingdom. Those films didn’t to need implicate the audience. You left aware of higher powers and, exhilaratingly, felt smaller for it.