“Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity,” said Werner Herzog. Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté puts that theory to the test for a wide variety of animals in his alternately mesmerizing and monotonous experimental documentary. Filmed primarily at a Quebec safari park, the movie is a wordless succession of brilliantly composed images of nature’s creatures as they look and are looked at. The stunning opening scene observes a classroom of artists gazing rhythmically between easel and offscreen subject; only after a few symphonic minutes of pencils scratching on paper do we see the group is ogling a stuffed deer, its black eyes pointedly hollow.
The living beasts that Côté trains his camera on are similarly empty vessels. Cows stare dumbly ahead; a llama paces back and forth in front of a wire-mesh fence; lions and tigers loudly rattle their cages. Any temptation to anthropomorphize the subjects is counteracted by the abstract, coldly precise visuals. (An uptilting shot of ostriches as they move their heads in and out of frame is like a horror movie jump scare extended into infinity.) Tediousness sets in eventually; there’s only so much zoological abyss-gazing one can do. Even a climactic turn toward playfulness—baby elephants make everything better—can’t dispel the desire to leave this pseudo-wild kingdom far behind.
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