'L'Animale': Film Review | Berlin 2018

Strikes an astute balance between tough and tender.

A small-town Austrian tomboy wrestles with gender identity and sexuality while her parents navigate their own rocky emotional shifts in Katharina Mueckstein’s drama.

Austrian writer-director Katharina Mueckstein's well-crafted and appealingly cast second feature, L'Animale, opens with two motocross bikers kicking up dirt as they circle one another in friendly rivalry. Under the full-face helmet and bulky protective gear, one of them is Mati, a high school student about to graduate and leave her rural hometown for college in Vienna. She has dodged true self-knowledge by being one of the boys, as hard-edged as any of them whether on her bike, knocking back beers at the local dance club or even harassing the haughty blonde beauty who rebuffs the oafish advances of one of her buddies. But a personal reckoning becomes unavoidable.

As played with both armor and vulnerability by the terrific Sophie Stockinger, who appeared in Mueckstein's 2013 debut Talea, Mati is a riveting central figure in a film whose exploration of queer identity and desire extends beyond the protagonist to her closeted father. Examining the fear of being different, particularly in a provincial environment, the screenplay becomes almost schematic at times. But there's a current of raw feeling here, an emotional electricity, that should connect directly to young LGBT audiences.

"I look like a clown," Mati huffs while surveying her reflection in the girly-girl pink dress her mother Gabi (Kathrin Resetarits) insists she try on for graduation. With her hair pulled up in what's less a top knot than a man bun, and her utilitarian sports bra visible through the outfit's lace inserts, her discomfort with this forced duality is plain to see.

That uneasiness becomes even more acute later when, after she remains willfully oblivious to the signals all evening, her best pal Sebi (Jack Hofer) abruptly declares that his feelings for her have changed, attempting to convince her with a clumsy kiss. The scene is all the more affecting because Mueckstein, while clearly focused on Mati's internal confusion, is not insensitive to Sebi's hurt, even when it turns vindictive. A stoner who passively accepts an unexciting future in which he will take over his father's small cattle farm, Sebi seems to see his world shrinking even further with Mati's rejection.

Her feelings are complicated by her growing friendship with Carla (Julia Franz Richter), an independent, slightly older girl to whom she feels an instant attraction. Carla initially views Mati with the same distaste she shows for the whole swaggering motocross gang of four. But in a lovely scene at Gabi's veterinary clinic, where Mati works part-time, training to follow her mother's career path, Carla sees a different side of her. The development of their mutual feelings follows an unsurprising course, but it's handled with delicacy and infectious warmth.

Mueckstein expands the drama at just the right time by revealing that while all this adolescent awakening is taking place, Mati's parents are going through their own emotional shake-up, played with depth and nuance by both actors.

Gabi gets an eye-opening shock when she discovers her husband Paul (Dominik Warta) is having sex with men on the side. In an unsubtle metaphor, he's a building surveyor who's unable to get it together to finish construction on their house. But the observation of Paul's furtive gay chatroom visits and his nervousness around an attractive, openly gay younger work colleague (Stefan Pohl) makes it clear that the film views him not in terms of marital betrayal but of anguished struggle within himself. This is echoed also in the small shifts in Gabi's behavior toward him.

The script's points about overcoming fear in order to be fully alive are not always spelled out with a light touch, returning more than once to Mati's class at school studying the Goethe poem The Holy Longing. But perhaps a somewhat emphatic message is not a bad thing in a movie for a YA demographic. And despite its minor flaws, L'Animale is consistently involving, never pushing too hard for its quiet intensity.

That restraint adds resonance to the one notable departure into more forcefully emotive territory, when each of the key characters sings a line or two of the 1985 ballad by Italian singer-songwriter Franco Battiato that gives the film its title — about the animal inside us that rules our passions. Ever since the characters in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia sang along to Aimee Mann's rueful "Wise Up," this bold device has had as many admirers as detractors. Mueckstein makes it work, providing expressive release for her characters in a way that's in keeping with the movie's defining empathy.

The sense of a carefully imposed order that Mati steadily resists — first in her automatic rejection of her assigned gender role, and ultimately in a future that points toward more decisive agency — is conveyed in the sharp visual compositions of Michael Schindegger's crisp photography. And the urge to break out is suggested by electronic composer Bernhard Fleischmann's dynamic score, at times recalling the trippy German synth-pop of the 1970s.

The bursts of throbbing EDM in dance-floor scenes reveal a different kind of energy in the characters, contrasting with their motocross bravado in the massive dirt quarry and adding texture and vitality to this poignant snapshot of teenage self-discovery.

Production companies: NGF Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion, La Banda Film
Cast: Kathrin Resetarits, Sophie Stockinger, Dominik Warta, Julia Franz Richter, Jack Hofer, Stefan Pohl, Dominic Marcus Singer, Simon Morze
Director-screenwriter: Katharina Mueckstein
Producers: Michael Kitzberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer, Flavio Marchetti, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Schindegger, Natalie Schwager, Katharina Mueckstein
Director of photography: Michael Schindegger
Production designer: Katharina Haring
Costume designer: Monika Buttinger
Music: B. Fleischmann
Editor: Natalie Schwager
Casting: Rita Waszilovics
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Films Boutique

96 minutes