Only the Animals sounds like half of a proposition that needs to be completed. After watching Domink Moll’s ingenious mystery I’d venture: “Only the animals understand that life is a matter of instinct and impulse.” Or perhaps: “Only the animals know how strange humans really are…”
There are six main characters in a tale that travels back and forth between the snow-capped hills of the Causse Méjan, between Montpellier and Le Puy, and the urban squalor of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. One of those characters, a middle-aged woman called Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), has been murdered. The others all play a role in a story that unfolds by degrees. It’s like watching a folded-up picture being revealed in short glimpses, as first one corner then another is turned back. The narrative keeps returning to the same ground, allowing us to gradually complete the puzzle.
The most celebrated use of this story-telling technique is Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), in which we hear multiple accounts of the same incident from different narrators, but the same twists occur in numerous movies, including The Usual Suspects (1995) and Gone Girl (2014).
Moll dispenses with the device of “the unreliable narrator”, simply allowing us to spy on the secrets each character conceals. Over the course of five chapters the identity of the murderer begins to emerge but the pervasive weirdness of the tale discourages any confident predictions. Each new sequence has its surprises and by the end of the film we’re ready for anything.
The story begins in Abidjan with a young man called Armand (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Din) riding along on a motorbike, a live goat strapped to his back. Suddenly we’re in the French mountains, with Alice (Laure Calamy), who is some kind of home care agent doing her rounds. First stop is a farmer named Joseph (Damien Bonnard), with whom she is having an affair, although he seems so distracted the love interest is all one-way.
When Evelyne Ducat’s car is discovered abandoned by the side of the road following a night of snow storms there is no apparent clue as to where she has gone, but it won’t be long until we find out. As we trace Evelyne’s movements in the days leading up to her disappearance we learn she is married to a man who is largely indifferent to her private activities.
It’s because of Evelyne that a young woman named Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) arrives in the district, setting off another chain of events that involves Alice’s burly husband, Michel (Denis Ménochet). When we delve into Michel’s story we begin to understand the African connection, although it’s still surprising.
In trying to briefly outline the plot I’m limited in what can be given away without spoiling the successive revelations that make the story so absorbing. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, leading us to marvel at the malleability of human nature. It’s “only the animals” who see the full picture of vice, weakness and folly – whether it be Joseph’s dog, Evelyne’s dog, Armand’s goat, or the cattle that wait patiently, but in vain, for Michel to feed them. If the animals could talk they would each have an amazing tale to tell.
The main characters are all unhappy, driven by loneliness and lack of love to do desperate things. Armand is a victim of his poverty in Abidjan but also of the self-aggrandising fantasies that set in at the first sight of money. Joseph, who is grieving for his dead mother, has become morbidly delusional living alone on an isolated farm. Michel and Alice have grown apart and now seek their satisfactions outside of marriage. Marion is young and emotionally unstable, aching for true love.
Evelyne is the only character who imagines she is in control of her own fate. Her marriage is one of convenience to an undemanding husband who leaves her free to pursue her pleasures and bouts of solitude. Her mistake is to forget Sartre’s observation, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” (Hell is other people). No matter how neatly we arrange our own lives we are always at the mercy of others who see us as an object in their own private dramas. Evelyne cannot escape this objectification or the pangs of guilt and frustration that follow. She has no way of knowing that the drama she has unwittingly activated will lead to her death.
Only the Animals is reminiscent of the mystery-thrillers of Claude Chabrol, himself indebted to directors such as Hitchcock and Clouzot. Like those filmmakers Moll is adept at exposing the depths of madness and private pain that ripple through the most ordinary lives. This feeling is exacerbated by the stark, atmospheric landscape of the Causse Méjan, and the excellence of the acting, particularly Denis Ménochet’s Michel – an inarticulate, lumbering brute who still manages to evince our sympathies.
Secrets in movies are generally portrayed as corrosive, eating their way through a character’s peace of mind, leading inevitably to a crisis. In this story a diversity of secrets produces equally diverse effects, which converge with deadly results. What we get is no simple murder mystery in which a crime is solved and the culprit identified, but an investigation into the animal emotions that lie hidden in the human heart, sometimes uncomfortably close to the surface.
Only the Animals
Directed by Dominik Moll
Written by Gilles Marchand & Dominik Moll, after a novel by Colin Niel
Starring Denis Ménochet, Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Bastien Bouillon
France/Germany, rated M, 116 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 January, 2021