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A sense-scrambling trip into the Twilight Zone from Polish-born, Swiss-based director Greg Zglinski, Animals was one of the guilty-pleasure fringe delights at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. This darkly comic thriller about a married couple’s nightmarish alpine retreat pays obvious dues to Hitchcock, Polanski and Lynch, but is too stylish and self-aware to fall into the trap of mere pastiche. As a superior genre exercise, it is assured a healthy festival future, but venturesome distributors may also see the potential in its classy European psycho-horror pedigree.
Even the film’s backstory sounds like part of its surreal, macabre plot. Partly inspired by Relativity, a perspective-bending work by feted Dutch artist MC Escher, the screenplay was written a decade ago by Austrian helmer Jorg Kalt. Initially planning to direct it himself, Kalt took his own life soon afterwards. Zglinski, a former student of Krzysztof Kieslowski, expanded the script a little but still dedicates Animals to Kalt.
A bourgeois Austrian couple, celebrity chef Nick (Philipp Hochmair) and children’s author Anna (Birgit Minichmayr), set off for an extended stay in a remote chalet in the Swiss alps. They leave their Vienna apartment in the care of Mischa (Mona Petri), an uncanny doppelganger for Nick’s secret lover Andrea, who lives upstairs in the same building. There is plainly a build-up of tension and distrust in their marriage, which the Switzerland trip is intended to heal.
Driving through the mountains, Nick hits and kills a sheep in a crash that leaves Anna dazed from a minor head injury. When they finally arrive at the chalet, her mental state is still shaky, twisting the fabric of time and the laws of nature. A kamikaze squad of birds slam themselves against the kitchen wall in a scary Hitchcockian sequence. A local cat starts speaking to Anna — in French, naturally. Anna also begins to suspect Nick’s daily trips into town to gather local recipe ideas are just covers for his serial infidelity.
Meanwhile, back in Vienna, Mischa appears to have slipped down a rabbit hole of her own. After Andrea makes a suicide leap from the window above, their identities become blurred in a cryptic manner that pays homage to Polanski’s The Tenant. Mirroring Anna’s creepy experiences in the chalet, Mischa is drawn to a sinister secret room in the apartment. As the plot increasingly sacrifices logic for recurring loops, echoes and motifs, it seems possible somebody could be dreaming the entire thing. Maybe Anna. Maybe Mischa. Maybe you and I.
Full of haunting, nerve-jangling touches both visually and sonically, Animals could arguably be dismissed as a hollow exercise in spooky atmospherics with scant dramatic substance. It will certainly annoy some viewers in its refusal to resolve its mysteries with conventional explanations. Then again, serious scholars might fruitfully unpick its religious symbolism, its rich cinematic allusions or its philosophical take on the fluid nature of perceived reality.
In any case, Animals works just fine both as unorthodox genre thriller and mind-bending mental puzzle. Crucially for a story that plays fast and loose with narrative sense, Zglinski maintains a tight grip on the suspense lever, keeping us guessing until the final scene and even afterwards.
Production companies: Tellfilm, coop99 filmproduktion, Opus Film
Cast: Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, Mona Petri, Mehdi Nebbou, Michael Ostrowski
Director: Greg Zglinski
Screenwriters: Jorg Kalt, Greg Zglinski
Producers: Katrin Renz, Stefan Jager, Bruno Wagner, Antonin Svoboda, Lukasz Dzieciol
Director of photography: Piotr Jaxa
Music: Bartosz Chajdecki
Editor: Karina Ressler
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Be for Films, Brussels
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