Only the Animals

Evelyne and the hopelessly smitten Marion


Dominik Moll’s latest film, Only the Animals (Seules les Bêtes), opens with a striking shot of an African man cycling along the road wearing a live kid goat on his back much as you would a rucksack, arms and legs for straps. But from there we leave the titular animals behind and enter the all-too-human realm.

We’re up in the snowy heights of France in winter, where an optimistic insurance agent (Laure Calamy, of Call My Agent fame) is having an affair with Joseph (Damien Bonnard) one of her clients, a recently bereaved soul who leads a silent solitary life. The woman’s truculent oaf of a husband (Denis Ménochet) gets wind of the affair, fights with Joseph, comes home with a bloody nose and then, next morning, disappears. Meanwhile, up on the high roads, a car has been abandoned and a mystery woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) has gone missing. These things are laid out before us rat-tat-tat as if they were the basis for the story that is about to play out. But this is a case of more information revealing not just different versions of the same story – Rashomon-style – but other stories behind the first story. At some level Only the Animals is a journey into storytelling itself.

It’s divided out into chapters. The first one, Alice, gives us the story as just detailed – wife Alice, husband, affair, missing woman. Joseph goes back in time a short hop to tell us more about the solitary farmer, Joseph. Marion goes further back to explore the life of the missing woman through her relationship with a wildly emotional waitress, Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). And then, finally, Amandine whisks us out to the Ivory Coast, where we meet poor but proud Amand, who is passing himself off on the internet as a pretty girl in order to scam money out of one of the people we’ve already met.

Joseph out in the snow
Joseph likes it cold



In each case it’s a story of hopeless, smitten and (in varying degrees) inappropriate love, and we meet people who have been simply overwhelmed by feelings that make them subordinate to someone else, strapped by the legs to their back. And each “protagonist” turns out to be just a walk-on in someone else’s story. As things start to dovetail together, Moll isn’t just examining the grip of feelings but the strange power of a narrative, by revealing it not as a unity but as a series of avenues, each of which dissolves into fractals, if we let it.

The last chapter is perhaps the most interesting, not least because we’re out of the wintry European setting and on the streets and in the internet cafés of sun-scorched Abidjan. Here, Amand is not portrayed as a despicable low-life but as a smart and sensitive guy whose interactions with his “pigeon” (as these scammers call the dupes who buy their sweet words and saucy jpegs) lead up yet another avenue. Amand, too, has his own story of hopeless love to tell.

Moll has been here before, in The Monk, which presented passion as the medieval mindset would have interpreted it, as a battle for the soul with the devil. His first film, 1994’s Intimité, was in similar territory (clue in the title). And so was his most famous film, 2000’s Harry, He’s Here to Help (aka With a Friend Like Harry or Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien in the original French), another tale of an asymmetrical relationship.

There’s also a gothic aspect to All the Animals – death stalks this tale of overwhelming love – as if Schnitzler’s La Ronde had been given a 21st-century wash and brush-up, and with the suggestion that Schnitzler’s daisy chain of tales doesn’t quite reveal the complexity of human lives.

It dovetails together, yes, but only from a distance. Go in close and things get more granular. It’s a beautifully crafted film in terms of acting, cinematography, soundtrack and so on, a touch emotionally cool (what an irony), but what’s really to admire here is the craftsmanship of the ever-expanding narrative. In All the Animals even the stories have stories and, somewhere down the road, those stories have stories too.






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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Summer of 85

David and Alex on a motorbike

 

Intense, sexy and brooding, Summer of 85 (Été 85 in the original French) is François Ozon’s latest look at human relationships of a particularly febrile sort, all set in a seaside town at a time when Ozon himself would have been a teenager.

After a languid and deliberately cinematic tracking shot from the water’s edge right up the beach and onto the promenade, Ozon then gives us a smell of what’s about to play out by introducing us to two friends discussing what they’re going to get up to later that day. Both are handsome lads, and seem to be either standing too close to each other, staring too intently at each other or simply giving off too much animal heat. They’re not gay lovers, just friends, but Ozon has primed us for what comes next.

Out in the sea on his own a bit later, one of the two, Alex (Félix Lefebvre), gets into trouble when he capsizes his boat and is later saved by David, a stranger who happens to be sailing by. David, handsome and athletic, with his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a rippling torso, takes Alex, shocked and shivering in his trunks, back to his house for a bit of R&R, where David’s mother helps Alex undress for a restorative hot bath, pausing to remark delightedly on the size of his cock… in a way that is both motherly and inappropriate at the same time.

Somehow pulling off this dextrous feat is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the mother, a gossipy sort a world away from VBT’s more usual restrained bourgeois roles. She comes into her own later as the intensity of these early scenes give way to tragedy and the over-sharing matron transforms into something much more vengeful.

 

Alex and David prepare to go out
Beginning of the end: Alex and David

 

Something goes wrong, yes, but we’re not quite sure what it is till near the end of the film, though flash-forwards give us the basics – a tragedy of some sort, David is involved and Alex is being held responsible.

In Ozon’s sensational, much imitated, never bettered 5X2 he teased out a love story in chapters by jumping backwards from the end to the beginning. Here the chronology is more traditional – he’s going forwards in time but he’s doing it similarly in leaps. We get Alex and David’s romance in soundbites, the salty meet-cute, the flirting, the consummation, then the moment when things start to sour, punctuated by a friendship that Alex strikes up with an English au pair (Philippine Velge) he meets on the beach (or, more to the point, who forces herself on him), a friendship that proves catalytic and fateful.

Having done love in chunks, Ozon then does the grief in chunks too, keeping from us the what and the who for as long as he can and giving the film a powerful dramatic tug.

In films like Swimming Pool and In the House and also, to an extent, Frantz, Ozon displayed a fascination for stories about obsessive, often destructive desire, and he does it again here, though it must be said that he seems more at ease with the love than the grief.

It’s also a portrait of a time, the mid-1980s, when a song like The Cure’s In Between Days, which features on the soundtrack, would have been heard everywhere. (Incidentally, Ozon was going to call the film Summer of 84 until The Cure’s Robert Smith pointed out that the song was released in 1985 – Ozon changed the film’s title).

Perhaps best of all is the way Ozon captures the feeling of impermanence in a seaside town in summer, where minds giddy on the smell of sunscreen embark on random relationships that lead into uncharted waters.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021