Here’s a film released in the UK during lockdown in 2020 and now appearing on MUBI. It’s also streaming for a cut-price fee on Amazon Prime (and many more streamers) and is well worth your time if you missed it on release. It’s a feature directed by Dominik Moll, the German-French director whose latest film The Night of the 12th, is due for release in the UK very soon I think. Only the Animals is based on a book by Colin Niel and it presents a particular kind of narrative, possibly more familiar in Europe than in North America or the UK. I’m not sure I’ve seen this particular narrative structure before but it did remind me in some ways of early films by Tom Tykwer and I’ve seen references in some reviews to Rashomon, but neither of these references are really appropriate here.

Alice (Laure Calamy) and the abandoned car on the roadside with the Gendarme Cédric (Bastien Bouillon)

Moll’s film begins with a cyclist in Côte d’Ivoire with a live goat strapped to his back. He arrives at an apartment block/hotel ready to deliver the goat. The narrative then cuts abruptly to a snowy scene in the Cévennes, the southern part of the Massif Central in France, and a title announces the story of ‘Alice’. A woman is driving to a farm. She meets the farmer, Joseph (Damien Bonnard), and seduces him. This is Alice (Laure Calamy). She drives past an abandoned vehicle on her way home to her husband Michel (Denis Ménochet). The couple are having marital problems and Michel seems to spend his time on his computer in his office in the cowshed. A TV News report announces a woman is missing in the local area and later a Gendarme appears asking Alice questions. The same location includes a second story, ‘Joseph’. We have been introduced to four characters in the narrative and the next story will introduce two more, Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is a middle-class woman on holiday alone in the seaside resort of Sète where she meets a young waitress, Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). The two women have an immediate rapport and are soon sexually involved. Two more stories will follow.

Joseph (Damien Bonnard)
Michel (Denis Ménochet) in his office

At some point, we will notice that they have seen the same scene before from a different angle. We begin to ask ourselves when is this scene taking place? Is it ‘now’ or is it a flashback? When did the ‘central’ story begin? Do we forget about those first images from Côte d’Ivoire? We shouldn’t because that is another linked story. Finally everything will fall into place and we will understand the whole narrative in all its complexity. The key issue here is that there is no ‘framing device’ as such and the different titles for each personal story don’t indicate dates or times. This means that we have to accept that a new story might be following whatever happened in the previous one, it might be happening in parallel or it might be happening before the previous story. The viewer has a lot of work to do to make sense of it all. But it does make sense and the conclusion of the film should be satisfying because it is solvable as a ‘reading’ problem. In the Press Pack, Moll describes his film as a ‘mystery thriller’, a category he suggests is an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ form. I’m not sure about that but it’s interesting to speculate about categorisations such as film noir which he also uses as a descriptor. There is also a hint of comedy in some scenes, even if the overall feeling is dark.

Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi)
Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz)

It’s difficult to explore the film’s structure in detail here without spoiling the mystery or the thrills. I will only point out here that the link with Côte d’Ivoire is via an internet connection in the first place. One ‘user comment’ on IMDb suggests that the film is an attempt to recreate a Nordic Noir in the snowscapes of the Cévennes. This did strike a chord with me and I remembered a couple of stories by Henning Mankell which link Africa and Sweden and which contrast the hot, sticky streets of an African metropolis such as Abidjan with a remote European rural landscape of isolated farms. I guess the difference here is that there is a strong colonial underpinning to the continued French connection to West Africa. There were moments in the film when I began to wonder about its ideological terrain. Is the director making any kind of commentary? He says not. He refers primarily to that sense of world’s both shrinking through internet connections but also pushing people further apart. He notes the inequalities in both rural France and Abidjan, but it is the case that most of the characters in the film are dealing with a search for love and a fear of loneliness no matter what their material situation.

Armand (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin) working on the internet in Abidjan

Only the Animals is a title which seemingly references the inability of humans to understand what they attempt to read in the eyes of pets or livestock. The narrative is very well constructed with a script by Moll and Gilles Marchand, who has collaborated on Moll’s earlier successful films and those of several other directors. The cinematography by Patrick Ghiringhelli using a ‘Scope frame is excellent in presenting the contrasting locations. Above all the cast, which includes well-established star actors as well as relative newcomers, is able to make the complex structure work through their performances. There will be some audiences who find the reading task too difficult or see it as too ‘clever’ or contrived. It is difficult but I don’t accept the latter charge. I think most audiences will rise to the challenge and enjoy the puzzle. Here’s the trailer from Mongrel Media in Canada.