Only The Animals

Only The Animals (Seules Les Bêtes) (2019)

Only The Animals (Seules Les Bêtes) first published by

In Lozère, France’s least populous department, in the south near the Massif Central, a well-to-do middle-aged married woman, Evelyne Ducat (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), has disappeared, her car found abandoned by an isolated snowy road. As local gendarme Cédric Vigier (Bastien Bouillon) investigates this missing person’s case, in search of Evelyne or at least of a story that can account for her absence, Only The Animals (Seules Les Bêtes) in fact brings us five different stories, each headed with a different character’s name, and following that character’s individual perspective through a complex series of events.

Yet the film, directed by Dominik Moll (Harry, He’s Here To Help, 2000; Lemming, 2005; The Monk, 2011; News From Planet Mars, 2016), and adapted by Gilles Charmand and Moll from Colin Niel’s 2017 novel of the same name, is no Rashomon (1950). Far from offering biased, self-serving and contradictory accounts of the same event like Kurosawa’s influential film, Only The Animals lays out separate episodes that occasionally intersect in unexpected ways, serving as the pieces of a narrative jigsaw that eventually fit together to reveal a bigger picture. 

While that bigger picture certainly includes the fate of Evelyne Ducat, shown in elaborate flashbacks that twist and turn like Lozère’s mountain roads, what unifies even more closely these five tales – about adulterous insurance agent Alice (Laure Calamy), grieving mamma’s boy Joseph (Damien Bonnard), lovesick young waitress Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), young Ivorian phone scammer Armand (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin) looking to make his fortune and to ‘collect the  colonial debt’, and Alice’s lonely husband Michel (Denis Ménochet) – is their common thematic focus. For each of these characters is driven to behave in ever more irrational ways by the exigencies of amour fou – and it is those crazy passions which lead, through a convoluted causal chain, to several tragic ends.

The other theme, implied in the title, is animals. The film opens with a man mopedding through the streets of Abidjan, and then walking through a corridor to an apartment door, all with a bleating goat on his shoulders. Both Joseph and Michel are farmers with livestock, and Joseph also has a pet dog – as does Alice, who also gives Marion the nickname “Monkeyface”, while Armand uses a cat as his emoji. Alice describes how when she first met Joseph after his beloved mother died, he told her, “I only talk to the animals and my dog.” Joseph insists that this is still true, but secretly this strange lonely man prefers the company of humans, if not necessarily living ones, and his story unfolds as a variant on the same Ed Gein story that also influenced Psycho (1960), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Deranged (1974). Here the animal motif adumbrates the animalistic, appetitive, erotic urges of the human characters.

Most of Only The Animals is set in Lozère, or further south in the French port commune of Sète on the Mediterranean. Armand’s scenes, however, take place in faraway Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. When Armand visits the wizard marabout Papa Sanou (Christian Ezan) for spiritual guidance, he is told two things: “Chance is stronger than you, idiot!”, and “Love is giving what you don’t have.” These two principles also underlie the very structure of Moll’s film, where wild coincidences and crazy infatuations govern everything that happens. It is, in the end, one of those films like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia 1999), or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) – criss-crossing ensemble narratives whose confluences, ruled by the vagaries of chance, the viewer must be willing to accept. Some may find the film’s final fortuity requires a leap of faith, or at least suspension of disbelief, too far, as a second link between Lozère and Abidjan is revealed to exist alongside the first, and what goes around then comes around in a full circle that is just a little bit too neat. Still, this invisible interconnectedness serves as a sly metaphor for the complicated two-way traffic of exploitation between modern France and her colonial history – making Only The Animals also recall, in its way, Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005) and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child (2019).

Summary: Dominik Moll delivers an ensemble tale (or five) of crossed purposes, animal drives and amour fou.

Anton Bitel