Netflix UK film review: Only the Animals (Seules Les Bêtes)
Complex multi-faceted narrative7
Too many coincidences6
Anton Bitel | On 30, May 2020
Director: Dominik Moll
Cast: Denis Ménochet, Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Bastien Bouillon
Watch Only the Animals online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / CHILI
In Lozère, France’s least populous department, in the south near the Massif Central, a well-to-do middle-aged married woman, Evelyne Ducat (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), has disappeared, her car found abandoned by an isolated snowy road. As local gendarme Cédric Vigier (Bastien Bouillon) investigates this missing person’s case, in search of Evelyne – or at least of a story that can account for her absence – Only the Animals brings us five different stories, each headed with a different character’s name and following that character’s individual perspective through a complex series of events.
Yet the film, directed by Dominik Moll (The Monk), and adapted by Gilles Charmand and Moll from Colin Niel’s 2017 novel of the same name, is no Rashomon. Far from offering biased, self-serving and contradictory accounts of the same event like Kurosawa’s influential film, Only the Animals lays out separate episodes that occasionally intersect in unexpected ways, serving as the pieces of a narrative jigsaw that eventually fit together to reveal a bigger picture.
While that bigger picture certainly includes the fate of Evelyne Ducat, shown in elaborate flashbacks that twist and turn like Lozère’s mountain roads, what unifies these five tales – about adulterous insurance agent Alice (Laure Calamy), grieving mamma’s boy Joseph (Damien Bonnard), lovesick young waitress Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), young Ivorian scammer Armand (Guy Roger “Bibisse” N’Drin) looking to make his fortune and to “collect the colonial debt”, and Alice’s lonely husband Michel (Denis Ménochet) – is their thematic focus. For each of these characters is driven to behave in ever more irrational ways by the exigencies of amour fou – and those crazy passions lead, through a convoluted causal chain, to several tragic ends.
The other theme, implied in the title, is animals. The film opens with a man mopedding through the streets of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, and then walking through a corridor to an apartment door, all with a bleating goat on his shoulders. Both Joseph and Michel are farmers with livestock, and Joseph also has a pet dog – as does Alice, who gives Marion the nickname “Monkeyface”, while Armand uses a cat as his emoji. Alice describes how, when she first met Joseph after his beloved mother died, he told her: “I only talk to the animals and my dog.” Joseph insists that this is still true, but secretly this strange, lonely man prefers the company of humans, if not necessarily living ones, and his story unfolds as a variant on the same Ed Gein story that influenced Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deranged. Here, the animal motif adumbrates the animalistic, appetitive, erotic urges of the human characters.
Most of Only the Animals is set in Lozère, or further south in the French port commune of Sète on the Mediterranean. Armand’s scenes, however, take place in faraway Abidjan. When Armand visits the wizard marabout Papa Sanou (Christian Ezan) for spiritual guidance, he is told two things: “Chance is stronger than you, idiot!” and “Love is giving what you don’t have.”
These two principles also underlie the structure of Moll’s film, where wild coincidences and crazy infatuations govern everything that happens. It is, in the end, one of those films like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel – criss-crossing ensemble narratives whose confluences, ruled by the vagaries of chance, the viewer must be willing to accept.
Some may find the film’s final fortuity requires one leap of faith too far, and that what goes around comes full circle just a little too neatly. Still, this invisible interconnectedness serves as a sly metaphor for the complicated two-way traffic of exploitation between modern France and her colonial history – making Only The Animals also recall, in its way, Michael Haneke’s Hidden and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child.
Only the Animals is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.