Denis Côté, one of the foremost figures of Canada’s cinematic vanguard, visited Chicago last October to screen his latest work Joy of Man’s Desiring at the Chicago International Film Festival. Taking advantage of his presence, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago hosted him for a screening and discussion of his 2012 film Bestiaire, which he stated as “probably my most successful film” in terms of the exposure it garnered. That’s quite a claim from a director whose films have premiered at Cannes and Sundance and have won prizes at Berlin and Locarno. Among his accomplished filmography, Bestiaire has the distinction of having premiered at both Sundance and Berlin (a nearly impossible feat in the increasingly competitive relations between A-list film festivals); doubly impressive given that it consists largely of shots of animals in a Montreal zoo, with virtually no dialogue or narration to explain its images.
That sense of being confronted with the incomprehensible is a running theme in Côté’s films, as well as a guiding strategy for how he establishes a cinematic perspective in his direction. Bestiaire was made of a desire to contradict the easy anthropomorphic sentiment that typically happens when people look at animals, as evidenced in countless films (not to mention Facebook posts). Côté sought nothing less than to convey the peculiar sensation of the animals looking at us, and the unsettling, often indecipherable mystery of those looks.
In this video Côté discusses some of his filmmaking strategies for achieving his vision, including the surprising role of sound design to create his effects—as well as his skepticism towards other forms of documentary filmmaking.