DIRECTOR: DOMINIK MOLL
CAST: LAURE CALAMY, NADIA TERESZKIEWICH, DAMIEN BONNARD, VALERIA BRUNI TEDESCHI, DENIS MENOCHET
FRANCE 2020, CERT 15, 116 MINS
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
Rod Stewart was premature: it’s not the first cut that’s the deepest. That honour goes to the lacerations accumulated over a lifetime, suddenly appearing as a yearning sinkhole in middle-aged hearts. This is the cheery premise of Dominik Moll’s Only The Animals (based on the novel Seules les bêtes by Colin Niel) and he does a splendid of job of elaborating his stance to the audience.
Set in rural southern France and the Ivory Coast, the film opens with a brief glimpse of the life of Armand, a compelling Guy Roger N'Drin , a young Abidjan hustler rushing to an important meeting, with a small goat, tied like a rucksack, on on his back. As the shot dissolves in a close up of the goat’s eye, the feeling the animal is unlikely to be heading for a petting zoo, sets up a feeling of prolonged unease.
Swiftly the film moves to the snowy French countryside, resembling a 17th century Dutch landscape painting, with tiny dark figures and buildings set against a rolling, white expanse. The story unfolds from the viewpoint of the main characters. First there is Alice - Laure Calamy mining the rigours of mid life for every spark of playfulness - wife and daughter of a farmer, whose work in insurance takes her around the local community’s farms and homes. Alice’s mobility also enables her to have an affair with bereaved neighbour Joseph, something of an open secret.
Only The Animals’ structure is like a jigsaw play-mat, with Alice as the smoothing presence who makes the pieces lie down flat and dovetail for the viewer, even if she, frequently, gets the wrong end of the stick. And a twisty chronology gives the Columbo-like matching of the story fragments a satisfying feel.
Misinterpretations with fatal consequences are central to the narrative, where characters only see what they want to see, and are wilfully blind to how their actions affect others, and how they in turn are being manipulated.
At the centre of the story is a woman’s disappearance, the seducing Evelyn, played with steeliness by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. Told from the viewpoint of her work- trip fling waitress, Marion, Nadia Tereszkiewicz portraying coltish infatuation beautifully, we witness the fallout when transactional views of the world collides with a more heartfelt one. Whatever the likeability factor, all the female characters in Only the Animals kick ass, exercising agency, and going for what they want, however misguided, warped or downright dangerous.
The male characters operate in a less down to earth landscape. Joseph, a powerfully remote performance by Damien Bonnard, is so sucker punched by grief for his mother, he lives mainly in his head, grotesquely distorting his grasp on real world events. Alice’s husband Michel, portrayed with cunning and desperation by Denis Ménochet, has withdrawn to the fantasy world of online dating, lavishing money on a serially calamity- struck, virtual girlfriend.
The online strand is the one Moll uses to take us back to Abidjan, and the desperate lives of its IT savvy, silver tongued youth. Through Armand’s story we learn the reality of developing world life, with Western ideas of romance sitting at the top of an unattainable pyramid of desire. The maze-like, shanty town setting of the penultimate confrontation scene, underlines the film’s universal emotional imprisonment theme.
In the final scene loose ends tie together in a pragmatic, if cynical, knot. Not the stuff of dreams, but maybe the stuff of an OKish life.