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Twenty years ago, director Dominik Moll made a splash at Cannes with his black-comic psychological shocker Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut Du Bien, starring the incomparably disturbing Sergi López – a film with the kind of delicious cruelty and sophistication that somehow only the French can produce. Its title over here was inelegantly rendered as Harry, He’s Here to Help, although I made a doomed attempt to popularise my own version: Harry Wants to Be Your Friend. After that, Moll had a number of credits, but nothing to live up to that picture, which promised us a film-maker with the style of Claude Chabrol.
But now Moll has given us this audacious, witty and absorbing mystery thriller, a tale of adultery and amour fou with a gamey touch of the macabre – adapted by Moll and his longtime collaborator Gilles Marchand from the novel, Seules Les Bêtes by Colin Niel. It is about five people and their relationship with a sixth person who is to meet a terrifying, arbitrary fate. The movie introduces us in turn to these six overlapping lives, with ingenious point-of-view shifts that will explain an apparent oddity or anomaly in the previous scene and set us up for a rug-pull in the next, letting us in on a secret, then coolly pushing us away.
The unhappy woman at the centre of this spider’s web is the wealthy and married Evelyne Ducat, whose business takes her to Sète in the south of France but whose lifestyle leaves her emotionally unsatisfied. She is played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, and she has a great moment that requires her to give a feline smile of panicky, thin-lipped irritation at a lover, before unleashing the vengeful, petulant slap that is to seal her fate.
Near where Evelyne she lives is a farm run by the morose Michel, terrifically played by veteran French character actor Denis Ménochet, a man radiating unhappiness, made grizzled and careworn by hard work, and the strain of keeping secrets. His wife, Alice, played with poignant emotional hurt by Laure Calamy (known for the Netflix TV comedy Call My Agent), is acquainted with nearby farmer Joseph (Damien Bonnard), a reclusive, difficult man, going through an emotional breakdown following the death of his adored mother. Then there is the beautiful, willowy Marion, played by Nadia Tereszkiewicz, who waits tables in Sète.
Most mysteriously of all there is Armand, a young guy in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, whom we see at the very beginning, cycling somewhere with a goat on his back – a sacrificial goat, perhaps? He is on his way to a local gang boss, Papa Sanou (Christian Ezan), who exerts a voodoo-ish influence and sums up the film’s philosophy by telling Armand: “Chance is stronger than you, idiot!” Poor Armand yearns to be rich and is still in love with a young woman who is the mother of his child but is now with a wealthy European. Armand talks about a “colonial debt”.
These people provide the film’s constituent parts, which interlock like the workings of an intricate and malign musical box, creating dashes of melodrama, erotic obsession and even soap opera, and all superbly performed. In a way, each of these people occupies a short story, an individual mini-film, but they all find themselves in the Venn-diagram overlap of fate, and their lives are made to dovetail like the films of Kieslowski’s Three Colours sequence of 1993-94, or Lucas Belvaux’s Trilogie of 2002.
The words … Are Happy could go on the end of this film’s title. It is about human beings who are yearning desperately for something they don’t or can’t have – and are bashing at the prison bars of their own loneliness. The gnomic Papa Sanou says something else to the point: “Love is giving what you don’t have.” For many of these people love is about making demands, about trying to get the best of the bargain, or about trying to escape from a terrible bargain about their life’s direction that they don’t remember taking. They want to take love and have nothing to give in return.
• Only the Animals is on Curzon Home Cinema from 29 May.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Only the Animals review – audacious web of love and strangeness | Peter Bradshaw’s film of the week | Film