It’s a measure of the state we’re in today that Thomas Cailley’s follow-up to his 2014 debut Love at First Fight could be described as a metaphor for just about anything you like. It takes the surreal premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 Cannes hit The Lobster and, through a peculiar kind of cinematic alchemy, makes a surprisingly credible family drama out of it. Its overarching themes of love and tolerance go a long way, and it’s by no means a stretch to see a bunch of current hot-button topics — the world refugee crisis, climate change and trans rights to name but three — refracted through Cailley’s lens.
In The Lobster, people who fail to find a partner at least get to choose what animal they would like to be, but in The Animal Kingdom — selected to open the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes — the process is way more random. In fact, the first suggestion that something is not quite right comes right at the start, when everyday father François (Romain Duris) and his teenage son Émile (Paul Kircher) find themselves trapped in epic gridlock worthy of a Roy Andersson movie. Suddenly, the doors of a nearby ambulance explode outward, and a strange creature — half man, half bird — emerges. The duo are obviously shocked but not especially surprised, since François’ wife Nina has just been taken into state care herself after morphing into a wild bear.
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Nina is about to be packed off to a grey concrete confinement area in the south of France, so François moves down there to be near her. Émile starts a new school, where he is readily accepted by his peer group, and everything seems fine. The situation changes, however, when a van transporting various creatures crashes in the local woods and Nina goes missing. François, who resents the authorities’ intervention, sets out to track her down, admitting that he may be fooling himself into thinking that this creature is still in any sense his wife (“I’m scared of losing her and I’m scared of finding her”).
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In the meantime, Émile is having difficulties at school, not because of the other pupils but because his body is changing. His fingernails are becoming talons, he’s growing fangs, fur is growing on his skin, and his spine is raised, distorting his back. As François commences his search, and while Émile tries to cover up his changing body, both are sensitive to the local culture war surrounding the bestioles. Some want them locked away, others happily donate to creature food banks and advocate for their rights, but, for the most part, the locals are happy just to sit on the fence (“I like animals, but from afar,” says one, a sentiment he believes in so much that he actually puts it on a T-shirt).
Still, “these mutations are a recent phenomenon,” and when François discovers Émile’s secret, his first concern is his son’s welfare: the backlash against the creatures has begun to escalate as they continue to grow in numbers. In the meantime, François has the attention of hard-nosed policewoman Julia (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who turns a blind eye to François’ continued curfew-breaking until it becomes impossible to ignore.
Surprisingly, Exarchopoulos is the weakest link in this ambitious saga, playing a woman with a lot about her and not much to do, since the army has been drafted in to handle the situation. “I’m in shape for the Olympics and I wind up buying sausages for the military,” she tells François during a chance meeting in the supermarket. The two have a natural chemistry, but Cailley doesn’t really pursue it. Instead, for a long middle stretch, his film shows Émile venturing out alone into the woods. There he meets Fix, the birdman seen at the beginning of the film, who now has a full set of wings and is learning to fly. Émile coaches him in scenes that, if a little long and overly digressive, at least have an appealing, almost Gilliam-esque sense of playfulness about them.
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Though there are dark elements — the human squid might be nightmare fuel for many — The Animal Kingdom is not a horror movie, rather a middle-aged rites of passage story about a man coming to terms with losing his wife (to death? dementia? divorce?) and letting go of his soon-to-be-adult son. It’s certainly a testament to Cailley’s spellbinding magic-realist fable that it can be enjoyed at face value without being battered over the head by subtext. Dig a bit deeper, though, and its rich and strange barrage of images and ideas just becomes more and more remarkable and compelling over time.
Title: The Animal Kingdom
Section: Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
Director: Thomas Cailley
Screenwriters: Thomas Cailley, Pauline Munier
Cast: Romain Duris, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Paul Kircher, Tom Mercier
Running time: 2 hr 10 min
Sales agent: Studiocanal
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