Saturday, April 20, 2024

“THE ANIMAL KINGDOM”

THE STORY – In a world hit by a wave of mutations transforming humans into animals, François does everything he can to save his wife. As some of the creatures disappear into a nearby forest, he and their son embark on a quest that will change their lives.

THE CAST – Romain Duris, Paul Kircher, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Tom Mercier & Billie Blain

THE TEAM – Thomas Cailley (Director) & Pauline Munier (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 130 Minutes


The world is already a pretty scary place, but what if people started slowly mutating into animals, too? This is what has happened in the world of Thomas Cailley’s visionary “The Animal Kingdom.” Though they may be slow, these mutations aren’t gentle, as we learn in the film’s intense opening scene. François (Romain Duris) and his son Émile (Paul Kircher) are on their way to visit their wife and mother, Lana (Florence Deretz), in the facility where her mutations are being studied. They are stuck in a terrible traffic jam when Paul, in a teenage fit, decides to get out of the car and walk away. A nearby ambulance starts rattling around, and suddenly, a man with a wing for one arm and an almost beak-like face bandage bursts out of the back, causing chaos. The sequence is notable for how well it communicates not only the terror of encountering one of these mutating “creatures” in person but also the terror these “creatures” felt because of what’s happening to them and how the world looks at them.

When Lana gets transferred to a special facility in the South of France, François decides he and Émile will move there. Émile doesn’t want to, as much because it’s the middle of the school year and because he’s afraid he will suffer the same fate as his mom. But they move anyway, only to learn that most of the “creatures” broke free from the transport that was taking them to the new facility, and escaped into the nearby forest. Most of the local police officers don’t seem to care about finding them and bringing them back nicely, except perhaps for Julia Izquierdo (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who takes pity on François and Émile when they demand to join the search, hoping to find Lana.

Exarchopoulos’s no-nonsense attitude proves to be an asset, anchoring the film so that the more fantastical elements feel real. Duris’s performance similarly anchors the film in genuine emotion, ensuring it is much more than an intellectual exercise. The film’s most impactful performance, though, is Tom Mercier, the aforementioned bird-man, who goes by Fix because he can’t remember his name. While searching for Lana, Émile finds Fix in the forest. Initially, Fix attacks Émile, but Mercier makes it painfully clear that Fix is torn between his human and animal instincts as he continues to mutate. It’s a heartbreaking performance that only gains depth as Fix and Émile develop a wary friendship. Unfortunately, Kircher can’t hold up his end of the bargain. The actor’s wan presence becomes a sort of charisma void; every scene he’s in feels less compelling when it focuses on him. Émile is a rather sullen teenager, but Kircher goes too far, reducing any displays of emotion to the most basic gestures. His performance flattens the character, reducing Émile to the physical signifiers of his change, while every other performer conveys a rich inner life.

Thankfully, those physical signifiers are the film’s strongest element. An otherworldly blend of practical and digital effects, the makeup work on all the “creatures” has the tactility essential to making them feel real. The mutations may happen slowly, but they still have an element of violence to them, as in a horrifying early scene in which Émile pulls a claw-like object out from under his fingernail. Fix is a jaw-dropping piece of work, with bigger wings every time we see him and painful-looking facial scars that tell a story all on their own about how much the poor guy has had to go through. There are several prominently featured “creatures” in various stages of mutation seen in the film, each one different from the other, and they all have a quality that makes you want to lean in and look closer, even when they look grotesque. It’s groundbreaking work that deservedly won the César Award in France and shouldn’t escape AMPAS’s notice when the time comes for the next Oscar shortlists.

For all the technical wizardry on display, Cailley and co-writer Pauline Munier have a lot on their minds, and the screenplay perfectly calibrates the allegory of the mutations so that it can apply to any number of real-world issues. Given the current state of the world, it’s easy to read it as a migrant story, but a coming-out metaphor is also present, as is a commentary on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of Émile’s new classmates even likens it to her ADHD at one point. Thankfully, the film never feels like an intellectual exercise. David Cailley’s hazy cinematography and the stunning makeup effects create an intoxicating atmosphere that envelops you in the world of the film. With the performances grounding the more fantastical elements, “The Animal Kingdom” feels scarily close to our own world, which makes its well-conceived allegory play even more impactful.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Incredible special effects makeup and an enveloping atmosphere help this multifunctional allegory land.

THE BAD - The performances of the younger cast members are less convincing than those of the more seasoned cast members.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Makeup and Hairstyling

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Incredible special effects makeup and an enveloping atmosphere help this multifunctional allegory land.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The performances of the younger cast members are less convincing than those of the more seasoned cast members.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-makeup-and-hairstyling/">Best Makeup and Hairstyling</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE ANIMAL KINGDOM"