Only the Animals (Seules le Betes) M, 116 minutes, 3 stars
Loneliness and a desperate desire to connect are recurring themes in this downbeat French crime drama. Director Dominik Moll adapted, with Gilles Marchand, the novel of the same name by Colin Niels, but this is not simply a whodunit where plot is the main element.
The mystery that ostensibly drives the film is what happened to a woman whose car is found abandoned in rural southern France one snowy winter. Only the Animals is made up of interlocking stories focusing on particular characters that move back and forth in time and are told in non-linear fashion. Although there are multiple suspects, we find out who the victim is and what happened to her well before the film ends - but there is still more to discover after that.
The film begins in an African village with a young black man, Armand (played by Guy-Roger 'Bibisse' N'Drin) riding a bike with a goat on his shoulders. It's a striking visual and an unexpected way to begin the film, but the African setting will turn out to be as important as the French one.
Moll's film is as interested in character and thematic exploration as it is in solving the mystery of the corpse - indeed, given the way the story unfolds in chapters, probably more so. It's a bit of a pity that some of the early scenes in France are pretty pedestrian, but it does mean the story becomes more engrossing as it goes along. The same events and conversations often unfold from more than one point of view so an attentive viewer can gain more information about a character or a new perspective on something seen earlier.
Alice (Laurie Calamy) is a social worker having an affair with one of her clients, Joseph (Damien Bonnard). Her husband, Michel (Denis Menochet), is engaging in his own kind of infidelity, chatting intimately online with someone he believes is a beautiful woman. In fact, it's Armand, who works as an online catfisher, telling sob stories in the hope of talking deceived victims like Michel into sending him money.
N'Drin had never acted before, but you wouldn't guess it from his performance. As the catfisher Armand he conveys the character's desperation and desire for money - he wants it not just to gain wealth and status but to help someone he loves.
In another story, middle-aged Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is also cheating on her spouse. After dining at a restaurant on her travels, she picks up a young waitress, Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), for a fling. Marion is infatuated but for Evelyne, it's just a casual affair. When she leaves for home, a distraught Marion goes after her.
Some of the segments feel too short - or too long - and some are more emotionally engaging than others although the acting and atmosphere are good all round. There are events and coincidences that stretch credulity but plenty to appreciate and enjoy, too. Following the journey of the corpse is an adventure in itself: it doesn't stay in one place.
A warning for the squeamish: a dog is shot in the film and seen dead and bloodied, so if that kind of thing is traumatic, take note. It's interesting that people who don't blink at any number of people being killed in a movie will blanch at the thought of animal cruelty, even when it's simulated.
In the press materials, Moll is quoted as saying he always forgets to ask Niels what the author meant by the title. Moll cites Cedric, the gendarme in the film, talking about cows and wondering what goes through their minds as they look at humans: "We don't know if they are stupid or just sorry to see us."
But, he says, maybe it's worth preserving "the beauty of this mystery" and let viewers interpret it for themselves. Viewers can do the same with the film itself.