Human foibles are the true culprits in Only the Animals (Seules les bêtes), a new thriller from French writer-director Dominik Moll (With a Friend Like Harry…) that opened up this year’s Venice Days sidebar. Spreading a murder mystery across two continents and chopping it up into a Rashomon-style narrative, the film can be a bit low on suspense in places but remains intriguing enough to keep you guessing till the last twist. Art houses looking for upscale genre fare could give this well-structured whodunit a look.
Adapting Colin Niel’s novel with his regular co-writer Gilles Marchand, Moll crafts a seemingly simple plot that gets increasingly tangled as it jumps from one character to another, taking some rather surprising turns but managing to make sense of it all by the last scene.
When we first meet home care nurse Alice (Laure Calamy) and her humdrum farmer husband, Michel (Denis Menochet), on the windswept plains of central France, they seem like your typical unhappy middle-aged couple. Alice is having an affair with the taciturn, slightly on-the-spectrum Joseph (Damien Bonnard), who’s one of her patients, while Michel spends all day stuck in his office apparently handling the farm’s accounts.
But when a neighbor, Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), turns up missing, her car abandoned on a local road, we start wondering how these people could be involved in her disappearance. Was Evelyne actually Michel’s mistress, which may explain why he arrives home one night with a bloody nose? Or did Joseph wind up killing her, which may explain why his dog has somehow been shot to death?
These and other questions will slowly but surely be answered as we switch from Alice’s point of view to that of Joseph’s and then to the young waitress Marion (the promising Nadia Tereszkiewicz), whose relationship with the victim opens the film up into a whole new territory that raises even more questions. And then we switch viewpoints again, this time to Armand (Guy Roger “Bibisse” N’drin), a 20-something grifter in the Ivory Coast who could be the person tying everyone else together.
Like Fargo remixed with Babel by way of Atom Egoyan, Only the Animals starts off as an intimate rural mystery and blossoms into a global affair where several strangers wind up connected in unexpected ways. The script tosses out a few good curveballs, especially when the action suddenly jumps from France to Africa, but each plot reversal also gets us closer to the heart of the mystery — even if some of the twists seem a little far-fetched to be true.
Yet Moll also has a firm enough command as a director (this is his fifth feature) to render the fragmented drama credible, although he could have upped the suspense at times to make his movie more of a nail-biter. Working with DP Patrick Ghringhelli, he captures many scenes in stark, naturally lit medium or wide shots, framing his characters against backdrops that vary from desolate farmsteads to urban slums to trailer parks to crammed call centers with good Wi-Fi.
The latter become increasingly pivotal as Only the Animals transforms, during its last act, into a sort of international cyber thriller, albeit one that tries to ground itself in real-world problems and emotional gravitas. Unlike Moll’s breakout debut, With a Friend Like Harry…, which drew comparisons to Hitchcock, or his last film, News From Planet Mars, this one has very little dark comedy in it and seems to be probing the grimmer side of contemporary life. At the same time, what ultimately happens to Alice, Michel, Evelyne, Marion and Armand — regular people caught in something much bigger than themselves — is not without its own irony, though it’s one less tinged with laughter than regret.
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production company: Haut et Court
Cast: Denis Menochet, Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Nadia Tereszkiewicz
Director: Dominik Moll
Screenwriters: Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand, adapted from the novel ‘Seules les bêtes’ by Colin Niel
Producers: Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta, Barbara Letellier, Simon Arnal
Director of photography: Patrick Ghringhelli
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Laurent Rouan
Composer: Benedikt Schiefer
Casting director: Agathe Hassenforder
Sales: The Match Factory
In French, Nouchi