Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Only the Animals: A French Mystery Reveals Itself

This rural French mountain village is worlds away from the Texas seen in Blood Simple or the Kentucky of The Devil All the Time, but its rural noir dynamics are very similar. You might logically wonder how a tragedy there could be related to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. Eventually the truth will be revealed, but director-screenwriter Dominik Moll will take his time teasing it out through flashbacks and narratives games in Only the Animals, which opens this Friday in New York.

Evelyne Ducat disappeared on the way to her winter vacation home, but Alice Farange does not understand how anyone she might know could be involved. She is also distracted by her own issues. Lately, she has conducted a rather open affair with Joseph Bonnefille, a rustic farmer, whom she met through her work at his insurance company. Unfortunately, that relationship is also about to take a sour turn, for reasons she does not understand.

Meanwhile, things are still frosty with her husband Michel, who is acting especially distracted lately. Regardless, she is still genuinely concerned when he returns home late at night, bloodied and battered. She assumes they are fighting over her, but what is really going on is much darker and more complicated—and it will take a while for the full picture to reveal itself.

Only the Animals
is definitely constructed like a puzzle box, in which clues are teased in full sight, but viewers need Moll to keep rewinding the narrative, to provide the context needed to put the pieces together. Fortunately, they all really do fit together at the end. The truth will indeed be revealed, but before then, Moll manages to wring a fair amount of suspense out of the mystery. There is also a rather surreal left-turn taken during the third act, somewhat akin to Charles Sturridge’s A Handful of Dust.

Denis Menochet is quite remarkable as the brooding and unpredictable Michel Farange, especially since when we first meet him, him comes across as rather passive and schlubby. Likewise, Valeri Bruni Tedeschi quite dramatically unveils several very different sides to the missing Ducat, while Damien Bonnard is uncomfortably twitchy as the socially stunted Bonnefille. They all really help keeping us guessing.

True, there are plenty of contrivances in
Only the Animals, but Moll pays off our indulgence. It is a cleverly constructed mystery that hooks viewers with the strength of its performances. Plus, cinematographer Patrick Ghiringhelli truly makes the Lozere mountainside look cold, harsh, and lonely, but in a strikingly cinematic way. Sometimes films like this can be a little too cute, but Moll invests it with a darkness that keeps it real. Highly recommended, Only the Animals opens this Friday (10/29) in New York, at the Quad.