Only the Animals Review
There’s a finer line between films deploying the Rashômon effect and the “everything is connected” ensemble drama than many cinephiles would like to admit. The latter, already widely derided after 2005’s best picture winner Crash, has passed the point of no return thanks to 2018’s Life Itself, an overblown, generations-spanning family drama that would have felt like a parody of the genre were it not for its overpowering earnestness.
Director Dominik Moll’s murder mystery Only the Animals may seem like a textbook Rashômon homage on paper, imbued with a healthy sense of contemporary Scandi-noir for good measure. But as its mystery becomes increasingly overblown, spanning continents yet relying on overbearing contrivances that tie everything back to one small town, it became hard to view it as anything other than a self serious, self consciously gritty Euro cousin to Life Itself. What starts as a perfectly adequate but ultimately disposable small town crime story, the sort of thing you’d expect to see on BBC Four on a Saturday night, only becomes memorable with the increased preposterousness of each new perspective offered - and that’s not a compliment.
In a small, snowy French town, Alice (Laure Calamy) is in the midst of an affair, unbeknownst to her farmer husband Michel (Denis Ménochet). The sudden disappearance of neighbour Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) starts to raise further questions about their domestic unhappiness - Michel turns up in the middle of the night, covered in blood, and the dog belonging to the man Alice was sleeping with gets shot to death, all within hours of this mysterious incident. From different perspectives, that span elsewhere in central France all the way to different continents altogether, the truth of Evelyne’s disappearance is revealed.
Author Colin Niel’s book, which Moll adapted alongside regular screenwriting collaborator Gilles Marchand, was only published in 2017, but this adaptation already feels dated. Contrivances in the later chapters revolve around a character being manipulated in an online chatroom, where he believes he’s talking to a younger girl who has shown an interest. The depiction of how people use social media to communicate feeling like a period detail from the early 2000s, despite the contemporary setting, merely only reinforcing the fact that older directors should probably stay away from making films about the evils of technology.
These later chapters are at least anchored by Denis Ménochet, in another performance that articulates the barely concealed rage of an ageing man who succumbs to self destruction after the dawning realisation life hasn’t gone to plan. But his performance isn’t as effective when placed within an overly familiar crime narrative that cares more about wrong footing its audience with every twist and turn than it does characterising the broken people within said narrative as anything more than uninteresting archetypes.
As for the chapters that precede this, Moll invests a significant amount of time on the affairs and small scale domestic dramas of the various unhappy people in the town. Again, this doesn’t develop beyond the broad strokes, the woes of the characters operating as red herrings designed to wrong foot the audience prior to seeing events from a new perspective. Moll is clearly fascinated by the base mechanics of making a thriller, and on paper at least, this adaptation is ingeniously devised. But a clever storytelling structure shouldn’t be singled out for praise when there is nothing worth investing in onscreen. I can imagine many viewers losing patience with an opening half hour that is devoted to the blandest perspectives in this tale, told with little depth, let alone a suspenseful intrigue that could make this good, brainless fun.
Only the Animals is exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from May 29th
Only The Animals (2019)
Dir: Dominik Moll | Cast: Damien Bonnard, Denis Ménochet, Laure Calamy, Nadia Tereszkiewicz | Writers: Colin Niel (novel), Dominik Moll (screenplay), Gilles Marchand (screenplay)