A collision with a sheep on a country road initiates a whole series of weird and unsettling experiences for Anna and Nick which ultimately leave them both incapable of being certain exactly where they are: in the real world, in their own imaginations - or in someone else's imagination.
Jörg Kalt and Greg Zglinski
Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, and Mona Petri
Animals aka Tiere opens with POV footage of a car driving through a very long tunnel. I’m instantly reminded of times (probably during my childhood) when I fantasize about exiting a similar tunnel into a completely different world or dimension, as though I was traveling through a wormhole or tesseract. When this image in repeats early in Act 1, we see a couple pass through the same tunnel and, much like my musings, into The Twilight Zone; a world that resembles our own in many ways, but operates according to its own laws of physics. In films and literature, tunnels symbolize birth and death and, more generally, transition. In a film that includes suicide, head injuries, nightmares, and car accidents (not to mention a novelist actively working to create a story within the story), savvy aficionados know better than to blindly trust what they see on the surface. It’s not that we don’t believe what we’re being shown, rather we’re opened to a virtual laundry list of possible explanations (and won’t easily be misled). Indeed, Animals is a film with multiple layers and characters who exist, unseen by other, even while occupying nearly identical spaces, making it a challenging (and intriguing) nut to crack.
Official Festival Synopsis: Anna (Birgit Minichmayr, seen in Maren Ade’s EVERYONE ELSE) and Nick (Philipp Hochmair, of THE EXPERIMENT) are going through a rough patch. The latter is having an affair with their neighbour Andrea (Mona Petri), while the former is faced with her partner’s infidelity, on top of suffering through a severe creative drought delaying her new novel. Both think they could use some time away, so the couple heads to the Alps in Switzerland, in the hopes that a nice stay at a vacation home might fix things. But what they encounter is stranger than anything they could have imagined: a collision with a sheep unleashes a series of unsettling experiences, and soon, neither Anna nor Nick are able to tell fact from fiction, night from day, jealousy from reality. Talking animals, rekindled frustrations, and strange doppelgangers soon become the new norm…
Animals is directed by Greg Zglinski from a script he co-wrote with Jörg Kalt.
The story of a couple in crisis becomes a perfect metaphor for gaslighting. Whether this was Zglinski’s intention or merely that gaslighting is the hip psychological concept of the decade is inconsequential when the parallels are this immediate and profound. When a gaslighter has conditioned someone over a course of months and years, the victim essentially becomes unable to believe their own eyes and ears, as well as gut intuitions. It’s a confusing and agitating state of existence, one that leads to a complete breakdown in communication; words lose their meaning as they’re twisted to accommodate the lies of a manipulator. Is it any wonder that Anna loses chunks of time, doesn’t know what day it is, and thinks it’s nighttime when it’s clearly day? Anna even comes to question her own physicality, proving she’s essentially been brainwashed into a state of semi-existence.
In a nod to the intelligence and expectations of today’s horror-viewing audience, Zglinski brilliantly (and almost comically) creeps right up to the fourth wall when Anna hypothesizes she’s actually in a coma, that everything since the accident has been a figment of her imagination. Still, the film has so many turns and unlocked doors (metaphorically and literally) that we can’t completely dismiss the possibility. When faced with dream/nightmare logic, we must keep in mind that no set rules apply, and even the subtle distinction between sleep and unconsciousness can be vastly important. Anna is plagued by reoccurring nightmares of her husband murdering her, a phenomenon she laments is completely out of her control. Viewers may feel this same frustration at times, as getting a handle on Animals is often like attempting to photograph a hallucination.
The title of the film may be important or only slightly consequential, but one can’t help but focus their attention on the movie’s animals. When a bird flies through the window and dies, Nick insists animals can’t commit suicide. Not only is this statement completely false (because aren’t humans animals, after all?) it reinforces his position as a gaslighter, a manipulator, an emotional antagonist brash enough to redefine the rules of death itself. A car accident involving sheep on the roadway becomes a major turning point in the film, and Nick’s evisceration and consumption of the carcass is particularly animalistic; it’s also a metaphor for objectification, as Nick treats women like pieces of meat. When a talking cat becomes a reoccurring character, the line between man and animal is completely blurred—just like the film’s timeline, characters, and symbolism.
Comparing Animals to the works of David Lynch, as I’ve seen other reviewers doing, is both dismissive and inaccurate, in my opinion. “Lynchian” should never be used as a synonym for “surreal” or “challenging”. It misunderstands the essence of David Lynch’s filmography, which is characterized by shocking imagery and abrasive, droning soundscapes (of which Animals has neither). I acknowledge that cars, time loops, and doppelgangers make for a convenient comparison to Lost Highway, but Zglinski’s film much more closely resembles the works of Stanley Kubrick in terms of incorporating aspects of nightmare logic and metaphysical mystery. The soundscape is hardly Lynchian, rather it’s sweeping and hypnotic; Animals is also devoid of Lynch’s trademark noir elements, intentional dissonance, and visceral gore. Critics aren’t doing filmmakers any favors comparing them to David Lynch, a man whose essence simply can’t be duplicated; it both beatifies Lynch in a way that’s inconsistent with the soul of his art and muddies the identification of another filmmaker’s unique talents.
Aficionados will detect echoes of Antichrist, both in terms of the cabin-in-the-woods motif and the couple-in-crisis saga at its core. Animals is also reminiscent of Stay, where life, death, illusion, and reality become indistinguishable. If you think Jacob’s Ladder is the epitome of hallucinatory psycho horror, give Animals a spin; you may be just as impressed as I was with the film’s ability to wiggle through our expectations as we grasp for answers. Animals offers no concrete answers but, at the same time, it makes multiple interpretations possible. Some films demand a second viewing to be understood; Animals may be no less opaque after multiple spins, but there’s enough mystery to encourage our efforts.
Bottom Line: The gorehounds won’t love it and the easily confused will hate it, but fans of metaphysical, almost esoteric horror will have plenty to wrap their minds around in Animals. The film is a tapestry of nightmares and dream logic, perception and paranoia, fact and fiction. With multiple layers of interpretation and potent subtext for explorations of manipulation and adultery, Animals is a hypnotic mind-bender that’s mysterious and metaphorical. Acting, cinematography, and production are all stellar.