Sunday 24 May 2020

Only the Animals aka Seules les bêtes (France/Germany 2019: Dir Dominik Moll)

German director Moll deploys an oft utilised narrative trick here, telling an endlessly circling story from five different perspectives and temporal shifts. We've seen this used before in films ranging from Rashomon (1950) to 1996's L'Appartement, Babel (2006) and 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

Adapted from the 2017 novel 'Seules les bêtes' by Colin Neil, the movie opens with an extraordinary shot: a young man driving into a town with a goat piggy backing him. The location is Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, and the rider is Armand (Guy Roger 'Bibisse' N'Drin). Briefly glimpsed, Armand returns to the story later. Most of the movie is located in Causse Mejean, a hillside town in southern France. Alice Farange (Laura Calamy), who deals in insurance but sort of co-runs a farm with her husband Michel (Denis Ménochet), ventures out to see a client, taciturn Joseph (Damien Bonnard), whom she loves; but despite them having sex the feeling isn't reciprocated. On her way back from Joseph's, in the midst of a blizzard, she passes an abandoned car which, it transpires, is owned by a woman who has gone missing, Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi).

It's pretty hard to describe the rest of the film without divulging many of the plot points, which, in the nature of a film like this, are delivered as 'twists' for the viewer. Suffice to reveal that we learn a lot about Evelyne, and much of what happens results from a combination of misunderstandings and subterfuge. Around two thirds through we are returned to Abidjan and the story of Armand, broke and resorting to internet scamming for money. And his crime, perpetrated from nearly 600 miles away, feeds the heart of the movie.

And 'heart' is an interesting word here; while the film is never heartless, it's often cold and sometimes very calculating. These are lonely, isolated characters, reflected in the chopped up way in which their interconnected stories are revealed. Naming the film's five chapters after each of the movie's key characters emphasises this: Alice; Joseph; Marion (who becomes involved with Evelyne); Armand; and finally Michel, whose section is shortest (and also sadly the most improbable).

When a film is assembled in this way, it's only at the end that you get the opportunity to ask yourself whether the story justified the method (see also the told in reverse narratives of Memento (2000) and 2002's Irreversible). "Chance is greater than you," says one character, and while that's a fair summary of the movie, it's also a study in causality. You might argue - again can't give details - that the characters in the film act foolishly or recklessly, but what Only the Animals seems to be telling us is that it's difficult for us to 'do different' - the cast don't make choices, they pursue their instincts, and chance does the rest. The movie is beautifully shot - the snowy vistas of the French plateau contrast stunningly with the noise and colour of the Ivory Coast, and the jigsaw pieces of the film fit together satisfyingly. There is an inevitability to the finale of the movie but I could still have done without it, because the rest of Only the Animals is much more subtle than that. But it's a small grumble about a very good film.

Only the Animals streams exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from 29th May.


  1. Very good review given that you did not wish to divulge too many aspects of the story. I agree with your last comment. It was simply a section that took away the credibility of the rest of the story. When I first saw Alice's name come up I was expecting not to enjoy the plot mechanism, but actually in view of the strength and potent relevance of each of the individuals it worked well, not just because of the division, but moreover being able to forge strong character engagement. I loved it. I am a big Noe fan and got to interview him at the Avignon American.French Film Festival a few years back, so I appreciate your reference to Irreversible, even though it felt more like I Stand Alone, shot at the other end of France.