I am a big fan of “Puzzle Films” – movies with twisty, unconventional narratives that challenge audiences to decipher them. Some of Hollywood’s most bankable (Christopher Nolan), respectable auteurs (David Lynch) have made mystery films, but it is incredibly hard to successfully execute a complicated narrative without making audiences cry wolf.
Greg Zglinski’s Animals (Tiere), which made its Midwestern debut at Cinepocalypse this week, squarely fits this bill. On the surface, the plot of the film appears to be consistently moving forward, but in reality it is doubling back and leaping forward on itself (the Hollywood Reporter mentions MC Escher and the comparison is apt).
The logline is deceptively simple: a struggling married couple – chef Nick (Philipp Hochmair) and children’s author Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) – set out for a six month sojourn in the Swiss countryside. He’s there to collect new recipes and she’s working on her first adult novel, but in reality they’re trying to save their marriage, which is in shambles. He’s been carrying on an affair with the upstairs neighbour Andrea (seen only in shadow) and he flirts with every female he meets.
A clear sign of their marital woes is that Nick and Anna frequently miscommunicate; they even seem to delight in passive-aggressive antics. Take, for example, the way that they pass the time on the long car ride: they play a game where they list items that begin with a letter of the alphabet (Animals, starting with A). It could be fun, but they spend the entire time correcting and challenging each other’s contributions.
It all boils down to the fact that they’re incompatible, a fact Zglinski (working from a decade-old script by deceased director Jorg Kalt) reinforces with omens of doom throughout the trip: a dramatic change in soundtrack accompanies their passage through a long tunnel; later they’re forced to sleep in the car when there are no rooms at the hotel and, in the first of many bizarre interactions with animals, they hit and kill a sheep with their car.
All of this suggests that Animals is a dramatic feature about a shit marriage, but there are also subtle tells early on that there is more going on than meets the eye. A hallmark of puzzle films is a non-linear narrative, which forces viewers to keep track of different timelines and sort them out as they watch.
Animals leans into this idea hard. A dual narrative back in the city features Mischa (Mona Petri), the woman looking after Nick and Anna’s apartment. It quickly becomes apparent that Mischa’s storyline is occurring in the past or is perhaps playing out more slowly (early in the film Nick receives a phone call but we don’t see the other side of the conversation play out until much later).
Even as we try to make sense of the connections between the two storylines, a number of doubles (another puzzle film convention) emerge. All of the women are seemingly stand-ins for each other. The ex-husband of Nick’s mistress confuses Mischa for her and Mischa and Anna are frequently shown in the same colour dresses, performing the same actions. At one point both women even suffer head injuries that require them to wear similar-looking bandages.
Could these women all be the same person? Is one of the storylines fiction? As Animals progresses and the head injuries accumulate, the narrative (and the different timelines) become increasingly convoluted and nothing is certain. Animals delights in spending time in this nebulous area, refusing simple answers about what we’re seeing.
Attentive viewers will enjoy drawing connections between the two storylines. Part of the joys of the film is deciphering the different timelines as foreshadowed events come to pass. Less easy to suss is the mysterious presence of a striking black cat that occasionally talks (it’s a testament to the film’s intrigue that this development doesn’t seem at all out of place).
While the performances are uniformly good, Petri often feels like the odd woman out since Mischa is only tangentially tied to Nick and Anna, despite the obvious parallels between the house sitter and the wife. Visually the film is often gorgeous, with striking colours in the country and impressive (albeit subtle) camera work and editing that help acclimatize viewers to jumps in time.
One striking scene occurs when Anna suspects that Nick is cheating on her with the girl from the ice cream shop: she peers in the empty shop window with a lit cigarette, followed by a cut to the wharf where she lights another cigarette. Then – following a conversation with the cat – Anna snubs out the cigarette in a match-on cut that reveals she is back at the alley in front of the restaurant where she began. The effect is a dreamlike passage of time and location, not unlike the film itself.
Animals is quite a trip: a consistently engrossing domestic drama with enough twists to keep puzzle film enthusiasts entertained. Viewers who prefer their narratives straight forward and their plot threads tied up, however, may want to steer clear. Animals is a haunting, visually memorable film and it is not afraid to leave its meaning open to interpretation.
Animals was part of the 2017 Cinepocalypse, which just wrapped up its run November 2 – 9.