Thursday, November 09, 2017

Cinepocalypse 2017: Animals

The title is reasonably honest, since there is at least one cat and several sheep in this film. However, the talking cat will incite murderous thoughts, while the sheep need better shepherds because at least one or possible two of them will be mowed down by speeding cars. Or something like that. Reality is a slippery eel to nail down in Greg Zglinski’s Animals (trailer here), which screens tonight during Cinepocalypse 2017 in Chicago.

Anna and Nick are quite the power couple (he is a celebrity chef, she is a children’s book author), but their marriage is still on the rocks. They have planned a sixth month retreat in the Swiss countryside, but it gets off to a rocky start when Anna discovers their flat-sitter Mischa is the spitting image of Andrea, the upstairs neighbor she suspects Nick has been conducting an affair with, which indeed he has. Things really start getting strange after Anna bangs her head in a supposedly minor auto accident (admittedly, the sheep gets the worst of it, by any standard of measurement). Her dreams seem to flow into Nicks, and vice versa.

As Anna convalesces in their cabin, she starts to experience lost time and feelings of paranoia. Yes, the cat also communicates with her, telepathically. What really makes her suspicious is the local ice cream shop woman’s resemblance to Andrea and Mischa. At this point, the film really starts playing games with our perception of on-screen reality.

One of the reasons Animals is so effective is that Zglinski takes the time to establish his characters and their circumstances before lighting off on a Lynchian bender. In fact, when he finally starts pulling the carpet out from under us, it is especially shocking because of the rhythms he allows Nick and Anna to settle into. Yet, the film soon becomes thoroughly disorienting, because we are never given signals as to whose reality we should trust.

Animals is darkly surreal, but it also has a healthily mordant sense of humor. Sadly, it makes you wonder what might have been, had Austrian filmmaker Jörg Kalt not committed suicide after completing the first draft of the screenplay in 2007, shortly after wrapping the little-seen (at least in North America) Crash Test Dummies. In the intervening time, Zglinski polished the script to a high gloss and executed it with remarkable fluidity. Indeed, his big mind-twists unfold unusually smoothly. Yet, for those in the know, the film’s several references to suicide are coldly jarring.

Birgit Minichmayr falls to pieces pretty spectacularly as Anna, while Mona Petri’s Mischa and Andrea are quite the emotional basket cases. As the relatively stable Nick, Philipp Hochmair really anchors the film and helps set-up the craziness of his co-stars.

Granted, Animals never really comes together at the end, but these sorts of films rarely do. To Zglinski and Kalt’s credit, it also happens to be smarter and more stylish than its mind-bending fellow lost highway travelers. Highly recommended, Animals screens this afternoon (11/9), as part of this year’s Cinepocalypse.