"Wild Things"

A version of this article appeared in The Age, July 10, 2010.

The further we get from nature, it seems, the more we like to look at animals. In an era of CGI spectacle, it's a remarkable and hopeful thing that viewers of all ages and temperaments are still keen to watch apes swinging from tree to tree in a National Geographic special, or a cat playing with Venetian blinds in a YouTube clip.

As the critic Andre Bazin intuited long ago, a natural affinity exists between the moving image and the animal kingdom. Acting styles can date, but animal behaviour is always fresh; even a well-trained dog or horse goes through its paces in perfect indifference to pre-conceived dramatic logic. Any film starring an animal can therefore be viewed as a kind of documentary – and in that sense, eternally modern.

Seeing animals on screen is a simple pleasure, but never an innocent one. It's possible that animal stunt performers will ultimately be driven from movies by the same scruples that have brought about the decline of the circus. Certainly it's hard for an adult to contemplate, say, the talking dogs of the new version of Marmaduke without some doubts about the ethics of turning living beasts into digital freaks. The flip-side of this response is the guilty fascination induced by a documentary like Food Inc, where a handful of sequences hint at the suffering inflicted by humans on millions of animals every day: cattle standing knee-deep in their own excrement, chickens forced into spaces so tiny they peck each other to death. It's horrifying stuff but rich material for filmmakers, given our endlessly conflicted feelings towards the creatures we cherish, fear and ruthlessly exploit.

This year's Melbourne International Film Festival will include a program titled "Wild Things" that consists mostly of animal documentaries – a genre that poses a range of technical and philosophical challenges. To begin with, there's no easy way to ensure the camera will be in the right place at the right time to record spontaneous animal behaviour. Luckily, some animals are more predictable than others (perhaps one reason there are so few full-length films about cats).

Filmed in rural Montana, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass achieves some striking, almost abstract graphic effects by portraying a flock of sheep as a tide flowing in a single direction, across mountain pastures or down an empty main street. Wisely, the filmmakers avoid singling out individual sheep as “characters” – instead emphasising the contrast between the collective identity of the flock and the solitude of the cowboys who drive them onward.

It's no surprise that many of the animal films at MIFF prove to be disguised statements about people. The clearest example is Bartosz Konopka's Rabbit à la Berlin, the supposedly true story of a tribe of rabbits taking refuge inside the Berlin Wall. Shut off from the wider world, they're at the mercy of initially tolerant guards who eventually launch a campaign of extermination. The allegory is obvious, even cartoonish, though the use of nature documentary footage adds an additional layer to the joke. If these poor bunnies have no clue about the drama they're involved in, Konopka implies, neither did the bulk of the East German population.

The MIFF program includes one actual cartoon, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip, a touching handdrawn opus that might be intended as a riposte to the Disney tradition of sanitising the facts of animal life. It's adapted from a memoir by the mid-twentieth-century British writer J.R. Ackerley, voiced here by Christopher Plummer and wryly visualised as a typically lonely, down-at-heel man of letters. Sexless as our narrator at first appears, his recollections of his beloved Alsatian bitch spare no anatomical detail, particularly when it comes to his efforts to find her a suitable mate. As we gradually realise, she serves as the bounding embodiment of his id, acting out all the antisocial urges he has to repress.

Anthropomorphism may be widely frowned upon, but there's no clear alternative to investing animals with human emotions, which after all are the only ones we have. Nicholas Philibert tackles the problem head-on in Nenette, his study of an elderly orangutan on show at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. While he never cuts away from his subject, he allows us to listen to the comments of her visitors: zookeepers, children, a drawing teacher who enthuses over her masses and curves. For the most part she seems listless if not depressed – but her Rorschach blot of a face permits no secure interpretations, and at the end we feel more distant from her than ever.

A similar mystery lies at the heart of Robert Bresson's extraordinary Au hasard Balthazar (1966), the centrepiece of the MIFF program and one of the most singular animal films of all time. The hapless protagonist is a donkey born on a struggling French farm, christened “Balthazar” by a group of children who temporarily adopt him. Fully-grown, he settles into the life of a beast of burden, moves from one owner to another, and even performs in a circus before passing into the hands of smugglers. Finally, he's shot by accident and dies on a hillside, surrounded by a flock of sheep.

This summary may sound straightforward, but in fact Balthazar is a more than usually ambiguous work by a difficult artist. In ninety minutes, we're asked to digest enough plot for a longish novel: there's a romantic triangle, a land dispute, a surprise inheritance and an apparent murder. All of this is treated elliptically, with many issues remaining almost as obscure to us as they are to Balthazar himself.

It's possible to see Balthazar as a saint (as one character suggests) or even a Christ figure. But before all else he's an ordinary donkey, who responds predictably to loud noises, to familiar people and places, to caresses and blows. Encountering evil at every turn, he functions as the ultimate passive hero, the kind that screenwriting manuals warn to avoid. Metaphysical significance is just another burden which he bears without complaint.

Arguably we exploit animals by putting them into movies at all, and Bresson doesn't pretend to be free of the sin of the world. No-one who has seen the film will forget the scene where burning newspaper is attached to Balthazar's tail, filmed with no evident editing tricks or special effects. Yet the decision to cast a donkey in a leading role was a natural extension of Bresson's obsession with automatic behaviour, the gestures and expressions that emerge when we lose self-consciousness. Here as in most of his films, nearly all the roles are played by amateur actors, whose line readings can sound as mechanical as Balthazar's brays.

Balthazar has a kind of human counterpart in Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), a young woman who falls under the spell of a brutal thug (François Lafarge). “I'd follow him anywhere,” she says, without trying to explain why. She is ruled by instinct rather than reason – but then so is every character in the film, human or otherwise. We may never know what happens in Balthazar's mind, but that needn't stop us from recognising him as a brother. To Bresson we are all dumb animals, driven hither and thither, oblivious to whatever meaning our suffering might bear.

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