My Fantasia Film Festival experience begins with a surreal mind-bender, Greg Zglinski’s Animals.
Let’s bitch it out…
Back in the day (many moons ago), I taught an undergraduate film course on “Puzzle Films.” It was a lot of fun to witness my students grapple with these complicated films for the first time and while in hindsight my screening choices seem a tad safe (Christopher Nolan, David Lynch), listening to students unpack non-traditional narratives (and their responses to them) was a delight.
Animals squarely fits this bill. On the surface, the plot of the film appears to be consistently moving forward, but in reality it is doubling back and leaping forward on itself (a Hollywood Reporter review mentions the art of MC Escher and the comparison is apt). The logline is deceptively simple: a struggling married couple – chef Nick (Philipp Hochmair) and children’s author Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) – set out for a six month sojourn in the Swiss countryside. He’s there to collect new recipes and she’s working on her first adult novel, but in reality they’re trying to save a marriage in shambles. He’s been carrying on an affair with the upstairs neighbour Andrea (seen only in shadow) and he flirts with every female he meets. He and Anna frequently miscommunicate and delight in passive-aggressive antics (their favourite way to pass time in the car is a game in which they list as many items as possible that begin with a letter of the alphabet, correcting and challenging each other’s contributions regularly). They’re seemingly incompatible and the trip itself is filled with omens that portend doom from the offset: a dramatic change in soundtrack occurs when they pass through a lengthy tunnel; later they’re forced to sleep in the car when there are no rooms at the hotel and, in the first of many bizarre interactions with animals, they hit and kill a sheep with their car.
All of this suggests that Animals is a dramatic feature about a shit marriage, but there are also subtle tells early on that Zglinski (working from a decade old script by deceased director Jorg Kalt) has a few tricks up his sleeve. A hallmark of puzzle films is a non-linear narrative, which forces viewers to keep track of different timelines and sort them out as they watch. Animals leans into this idea hard. A dual narrative back in the city features Mischa (Mona Petri), the woman looking after Nick and Anna’s apartment, and it quickly becomes apparent that Mischa’s storyline is occurring in the past or is perhaps progressing more slowly (early in the film Nick receives a phone call but we don’t see the other side of the conversation play out in Andrea’s apartment until much later). Even as we try to make sense of the connections between the two storylines, a propensity of doubles (another puzzle film convention) emerge: Mischa is confused for Andrea by the latter’ ex-husband and Mischa and Anna are frequently shown in dresses of the same colour, performing the same actions. At one point they both suffer head injuries that require them to wear similar-looking bandages.
Could these women all be the same person? Is one of the storylines fictitious? As the film progresses and the head injuries accumulate, the narrative (and their timelines) become increasingly convoluted and nothing is certain. Animals delights in spending time in this nebulous area, refusing simple answers about what we’re seeing.
Attentive viewers will be enthralled at drawing connections between the two storylines and parsing out the different timelines as events that were foreshadowed come to pass (Less easy to decipher is the mysterious presence of a striking black cat that occasionally talks, yet doesn’t seem at all out of place).
The performances are also uniformly good, although Petri feels like the odd woman out since she is only tangentially tied to Nick and Anna, despite the obvious parallels between house sitter and wife. Visually the film is often gorgeous, with striking colours in the country and impressive (albeit subtle) camera work and editing that help acclimatize viewers to jumps in time. A favourite occurs when Anna suspects that Nick is cheating on her with the girl from the ice cream shop: Anna peers in the empty shop window with a lit cigarette, followed by a cut as she lights another at the wharf, then – following a conversation with the cat – she snubs out the cigarette in a match-on cut that reveals she is back at the alley in front of the restaurant where she began. The effect is a dreamlike passage of time and location, not unlike the film itself.
The Bottom Line: Animals is quite a trip, a consistently engrossing domestic drama with enough twists to keep puzzle film enthusiasts entertained. For audiences who prefer their films a little more straight forward, however, this one could be a bit of a headache, particularly the lack of firm resolution that leaves the film hanging on a number of question marks, open to interpretation.