When Animals Dream (Når dyrene drømmer) (2013)

When Animals Dream (Når dyrene drømmer) first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“Any other rashes?” asks ageing Dr Larsen (Stig Hoffmeyer) of 16-year-old Marie (Sonia Suhl). “Have you had other symptoms? Dizziness? Blurred vision?”

The speaker, grey-haired Dr Larsen (Stig Hoffmeyer), seems somewhat oversolicitous as he gives 16-year-old patient Marie (Sonia Suhl) a check-up, palpating her flesh, examining her nails, looking carefully at her gums, asking her to lie half-naked on her stomach. “It’s probably nothing, but I’d like to see you again in a month,” he concludes. “No need to talk to my secretary, I already made an appointment.”

There is something off, sinister even, about this sequence at the beginning of When Animals Dream (Når dyrene drømmer), as Marie’s young, developing body becomes an object for the furtive attentions of a male pillar of the community. Marie is just old enough to be entering the world of work, which in this small Danish coastal village, shrouded in permanent fog, means a job at the local fish factory. Yet she is also changing physically, getting hungry desires and hairs where she never had them before – and as a strange red blotch spreads above Marie’s left breast, her father Thor (Lars Mikkelsen) and the family doctor seem worried that she may be showing the first signs of a condition that has left her mother (Sonja Richter) wheelchair-bound, heavily medicated and a virtual vegetable. Meanwhile Marie must face the taunting abuse – and worse – of her co-workers, with only Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), Felix (Mads Riisom) and the conflicted Thor extending her any sympathy.

Yet if Jonas Alexander Arnby’s feature debut is tale of a young woman’s coming of age amidst smalltown narrow-mindedness, the film amplifies these familiar elements through the tropes of a different genre. For dormant in Marie is an empowering wildness which her fellow villagers despise, fear and hope one way or another to contain. Still, once Marie has discovered the beast within, she does not want to keep it hidden or pharmaceutically suppressed, but rather embraces her otherness and wreaks a revenge on those who violently refuse to accept her for who or what she is. And so When Animals Dream concerns the awkward emergence of the monstrous feminine, evoking Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976) – pale thin Suhl even looks like Sissy Spacek – and especially John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000). 

Moodily shot in stylised half light, and often also in liminal, literally littoral spaces between the limits of land and the infinity of ocean, When Animals Dream is a film about growing up, breaking away and learning to live with one’s own difference, in a conservative community rashly struggling to confine or control a young woman’s transformation.

© Anton Bitel