Animal behavior: Creatures on film

by Kate

au hasard balthazar bresson donkey

Making sense of our animal companions

I’ve been wanting to write something about animals on film for a long time now. I’m not talking about kids-oriented, Air Bud– or Homeward Bound-type fare – not to knock either of those movies, because they’re not un-related to the ones I’m going to discuss, nor are they bad. However, whenever I bring up this topic, these are typically the examples I hear. When you do think of animals on film, it’s striking that they appear most frequently in either children’s movies or documentaries. We either revel in their otherness, or turn them into humanized talking beasts. Not surprisingly, both iterations of the animal are loved by viewers of all ages.

In general, most children are fascinated by animals from an early age, and I don’t think most of us ever lose touch with this attraction. Animals are both similar and different to humans, and bridging this gap, aside from their remarkable appearances, is was makes them so fascinating to us. When I think about my cat, Ira, – who is curled up on my legs as I type this – I am continually struck by several things about him. First, of all, his extreme differences from me: He sleeps whenever he wants to, has no problem expressing his distaste with being handled too much, and has no reservations about using the bathroom or licking his genitals in mixed company. He can jump three times his height and his own tongue doubles as soap and washcloth. On the other hand, he also cries when my girlfriend leaves the house for extended periods, or when he is removed from the company of his cat friends. He finds my presence comforting and often climbs in my lap – as he is now – to sleep, and runs to the door when my girlfriend or I come home every day. In short, Ira uses his own form of language to communicate when he is content or discontent, or wants something. He has traits, like language and feelings, that make him not unlike a person.

Conversely, guided more by instinct than reason, animals exist outside of human law, which makes them act in ways that can appear cruel to us. This means animals tend to take a central role in film for symbolic purposes, to highlight the more animalistic tendencies that humans possess. Movies like Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000), or the hunting scene from La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939) in which actually rabbits were shot, use animals to this end. I could devote a whole article to films that use animals to highlight human violence, but I’ll leave that aside for now. Often, I think creatures are featured on film for the same reasons children love to watch them. Perhaps we want to believe that these creatures have inner lives, perhaps we just find them beautiful. Sometimes we just can’t look away, although we can’t explain why.

The pleasure of looking

In one of the earliest Lumiere Brothers films, Baby’s Dinner (1895), audience members were purportedly fascinated by the moving trees in the background of the shot. Not that they weren’t interested in the baby itself, but their eyes were drawn by what appeared to be a moving photograph. The tableau, while staged like a photograph, contained elements the cinematic camera was unable to tame. While we are now accustomed to this effect, particularly in films shot on location, it can still be striking. The baby itself is compelling too, because it’s too young to pose for the camera. In fact, it offers a piece of food to the camera man. I’m often drawn to these uncontrollable elements in the frame – the wind whipping through the grass, or the sudden passing of a cloud, as occurs in my favorite scene of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). These scenes, like the passing cloud and the moving trees, are beautiful, the most random moments of life caught on film. Many animals, especially cats, have the same appeal on screen, because they simply can’t be trained to do the bidding of the crew. 

My favorite example of cats on screen is in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). The whole movie seems vaguely improvised, and a central aspect, I think, is just an homage to the beauty of life, and the beauty of the art that reflects it. The cats introduce an uncontrolled element that encourages us to view the movie as reality caught unawares. Unlike many films of its time, the frames of L’Atalante are fluid, giving it an almost documentary feel. Actors will enter and exit the frame and reappear again as if trying to dodge the camera. This porousness is also a reminder that life continues outside of the frames of the film.

In L’Atalante, Jean (Jean Daste) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) are newlyweds aboard Jean’s ship for a honeymoon. Pere Jules (Michel Simon), the ship’s captain, provides an interesting backdrop to the couples’ nuptial bliss. Pere Jules is, aside from the cats, the character people most remember about this movie, because of eccentricity, but also his childlike wisdom. These traits are highlighted by his collection of strange toys, but also by his affection for the group of felines that roam about the boat. They are first introduced when the cat has her litter in what was supposed to be Jean and Juliette’s bed. But they continue to pop up frequently, and Vigo allows the camera to rest on the kittens as they stumble around. One of my favorite shots in the film is a cluttered array of Pere Jules’ collection of toys with the cats lumbering and jumping around on top of them. While this isn’t a documentary film, images like this seem to be a celebration of the camera’s ability to capture life as it unfolds in all its unpredictability.

Luckily for us, the British Film Institute put together a montage of all the cat moments in this film entitled, C’Atlante. So, please enjoy:

Humanizing the beast

The camera also has a way of creating order out of chaos, though this is a mechanism Vigo resists in his film. Over the years, certain structures have emerged that are so ubiquitous they are practically invisible. Most common in classic Hollywood, these structures create a suturing effect that sucks viewers in and makes the cinematic world feel natural and believable. Not all films use these strategies, of course. And some do so only selectively. But the more common structures tend to stick out more when the human characters are replaced with animals. Shot-reverse-shot, for instance, is an editing technique so ubiquitous you sort of have to pay attention to notice it at all. It’s commonly used for filming conversations, or when a character is looking at something. First, we see a shot of the character, then their line of vision. Essentially, this is a technique designed around the human form, so when it is used on animals, it has the odd effect of making them seem more human.

llewyn davis cat

Naturally, kids movies are full of this. But more recently, I noticed it when I was watching the new Coen Brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013). Cats steal the show in this film. The cats serve the purpose of introducing new chaos into Davis’ life, but also are quite personified. When Davis, played dolefully by Oscar Isaac, departs his friend’s apartment after crashing there, he leaves the door open a second too long and the cat runs out, as cats are wont to do. When he goes after it, Llewyn and the cat get locked out, so he’s forced to take the animal with him for the day. Davis hops on the subway. The cat looks out the window and naturally gets frightened when he sees the tunnel speeding by. This sequence is accomplished with a traditional shot-reverse-shot. It’s one of the funniest moments in the film, one of the only true laugh-out-loud moments in a generally subdued film. Part of the humor comes from the way the film’s structure imbues the cat with human insight, which becomes all the more hilarious as the cat reacts in the most animal-like way possible – screeching and darting away.

Another famous example of the near-sentient animal on film is, of course, Robert Bresson’s, Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), which one of my professors at UChicago often referred to affectionately as “the donkey movie.”

With his mute but steadfast presence, Balthazar watches over Marie (Anne Wiazemksy) as her life unfolds. However, when interacting with other animals, Balthazar seems to become even more like a person. At one point Balthazar’s then-caretaker leads him past a zoo where he locks eyes with a tiger, and then a polar bear. The sequences unfolds in typical shot-reverse-shot form, making it stand out in a film where this technique is notably absent. Using an editing style typically designated for the human gaze, particularly when it’s not really used elsewhere, stands out here. What is the sequence meant to accomplish? Is Bresson trying to say something about the power of the camera to give (or shed light upon) a animal’s interior life? Perhaps he means to demonstrate that the way a donkey experiences reality may not be as different as we believe, which makes the events throughout the film that much more devastating.

In Au Hasard Balthazar, the donkey often seems to exhibit more human behaviors than Anne and his other owners, especially because Bresson’s famously-rehearsed actors deliver their lines with little emotion. The camera work effectively reduces many of the superficial differences between them. The donkey, Balthazar, is an angelic, even Christ-like figure who endures much suffering in the film. By making him just human enough, but leaving him with the innocence of animality, Bresson creates an otherworldly entity that bridges the gap between bestiality and humanity.

Animals are truly haunting on film, and as close cousins of the human species, they are riveting to watch. These creatures hold up a mirror that reflects our own human qualities back at us, as well as reminding us of the animal instincts we work so hard to repress. In some circumstances, an animal’s uninhibited presence invokes a sense of natural spontaneity that is often masked by the order-enhancing presence of the camera. Conversely, when this order is invoked on them, a surprising humanity emerges.