Cannes 2024 review: Flow (Gints Zilbalodis)

“Its whirlwind adventure and the way it manages to draw an emotional response out of the wordless journey of a cat, however, ensures that this will enrapture an audience of all ages.”

Cats and water don’t mix, every cat owner knows that. While our felines do not mind staring at it for hours and, contrary to popular belief, can swim just as well as dogs do, cats abhor getting their fur wet, as it both insulates their body heat and is a sensory organ that helps them detect their surroundings. Why this treatise on the world’s most willful animal and its relationship to water? Because the unnamed cat that is the protagonist of Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis’ second feature-length animation, Flow, is forced to confront his fear and distaste for the stuff for the sake of self-preservation in a wildly imaginative story that leaves plenty of room for thematic interpretation.

Cat (in the absence of an actual name) lives a carefree life: plenty of time during the day to roam the forest, only to return home at night and find a cosy place to sleep. The absence of a human is notable, although Cat’s house and its surroundings suggest a human presence in the past; a plethora of cat sculptures in and around the house attest to that. Cat’s peace is only threatened by a pack of wild dogs, but an exhilarating chase in the film’s opening scene shows that Cat can outsmart them all. What he can’t outsmart though is a sudden rising water level, turning Cat’s idyllic forest into something more resembling a mangrove swamp. As one of several remnants of human civilization we see throughout the film, a wayward boat is a lifeline for Cat, although he has to share it with a taciturn capybara that is also trying to escape the water. As they traverse a mystical world their vessel turns into a veritable Noah’s Ark, as a lemur, a bird (could be a crane, but this reviewer’s ornithological knowledge is limited), and one of the dogs Cat outsmarted earlier are picked up along the way. Their rag-tag band of animals will now need to find a way to get along and work together if they are to survive in a hostile world.

Zilbalodis, whose first feature Away won Annecy’s inaugural Contrechamp award in 2019, deliberately gives very little context for his animal odyssey, as if to say “Heed the title and go with the flow.” Neither the demise of civilization nor the cause of the flood (or it subsiding late in the film) is explained, placing the focus firmly on Cat and his frenemies navigating the aquatic world. The various ruins sticking out of the water tell us little about location, as Mayan and Tibetan influences are mixed with abandon. Cat’s adventures, though on a whole feeling a tad repetitive, are dictated by the course of the water. Although the animals over time learn to operate the rudder, by and large they go where the water takes them. Go with the flow indeed.

The animal behavior is a mixture of realistic and narrative-driven: at times Cat behaves like an actual cat while in other moments, when the story necessitates it, he displays more human traits. His canine nemesis has the same split personality, while their other companions lean more toward human than furry or feathered; the lemur in particular feels like a voice actor away from his famous animated cousins. Switching back and forth between Cat’s feline and human sides occurs when the story asks for it, and a fable about five animals sailing the world in a boat probably requires them to be at least half-human, but Zilbalodis’ choice to not commit one way or the other does feel a bit like a cop-out.

Created in Blender, the film’s 3D animation flows as freely as its waters, the virtual camera smoothly whirling around Cat like a drone. While the animation of the animals is somewhat crude, in particular Cat’s features are instantly endearing: his big eyes and pleading meows are hard to resist. Even if animated, the way he behaves just enough like a true cat is incentive to actually feel deeply for this collection of polygons. Especially because, as simple as the story is, it is hard to predict, and Cat’s natural instincts and the dangers he gets into are more heightened than fully ‘human’ animated creatures ever had to endure.

The imagination at times reaches Miyazaki-esque levels, Cat’s first experience with death in particular creating a moment of movie magic. The depth behind that imagination is not quite there, in part because Flow explains little of what is happening in a broader sense. Is the flood meant as a warning about global warming, and does Cat and his friends having to work together suggest a message for humanity? Perhaps, but mainly Zilbalodis paints a breezy and at times strikingly emotional story with broad thematic strokes. It reminds one of Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, another wordless film that aimed at portraying humanity at its base levels. The menagerie of animals is clearly meant to say something similar about the human experience, but Flow isn’t quite as touching as Dudok de Wit’s masterpiece, perhaps because of this world’s ambiguity and mystery. Its whirlwind adventure and the way it manages to draw an emotional response out of the wordless journey of a cat, however, ensures that this will enrapture an audience of all ages.

(c) Image copyright: Dreamwell Sacrebleu take 5