Locarno 2023 review: Animal (Sofia Exarchou)

“Exarchou’s follow-up to her well-travelled debut Park is a solid effort that bites off more than it can chew, but is held together by a beautifully sad central performance.”

Ah, the holidays. Lounging by the pool, tanning on the beach, a little too much alcohol, a little too much partying. But while you are having a great time there are people slaving away to make sure it stays that way. The tourism industry in southern Europe each year attracts thousands of young people looking for work, and many of them land a summer job in an animation team at a resort or hotel. While the dances may seem silly and the activities boring, a lot of them expect fun and adventure. But how much fun is it if you have to do it day in and day out, when energy and smiles are expected no matter how you feel? Alcohol, sex, and sun are a dangerous combination when you are having fun, but too much can be addictive.

As the tourist season is starting, a motley crew of animators of a luxury beach resort on one of Greece’s islands are trickling in. Among them Eva (Flomaria Papadaki), almost 18 and originally from Poland. The team is led by Kalia (Dimitra Vlagopoulou), a veteran at twice the age of Eva, who mothers over the shy girl perhaps because she recognizes something in her. The resort is for the early night, when sunburnt and overweight men get a chance at a close dance with a young and attractive woman while their wives are looking on amused. After midnight some of the animators moonlight in the local clubs aimed at a younger crowd, essentially doing the same work but with more alcohol and skimpier clothes. Nights drenched in alcohol, on occasion ending in casual sex on a beach; it sounds like fun when you are young, but when you have reached Kalia’s age and you are still there, you are stuck in a rut. No wonder she raids the schnapps bottles whenever she can. With Eva around, Kalia reflects on her life and realizes it is at a dead end.

Greek director Sofia Exarchou’s sophomore film Animal intends to show a darker side of the tourism industry, the daily grind of keeping other people happy to the detriment of your own happiness. She does this through the character of Kalia, who came to the island and never left, and now wonders if, at 35, she has thrown her life away. But there is no time for sadness, no time for reflection, the show must go on. As a portrait of a woman whose life has rushed by her while she wasn’t paying attention Animal is excellent, in no small part because of Vlagopoulou’s tough-yet-vulnerable performance. Once Kalia’s realization creeps in that this is her life, Vlagopoulou goes from strength to strength, and when her loneliness becomes palpable as she does her karaoke version of Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie in a bar where she knows nobody, ending with “I’m done. It’s over,” you see that sentiment etched in her eyes.

As a broader comment on the industry and our role as tourists in it, Animal is definitely a weaker, well, animal. The character of Eva and her relationship with Kalia seems promising, but ultimately never comes alive and only works in driving home the point that the industry is cyclic in the film’s final scene. The film becomes inert and repetitive for a good chunk of the second act, and while this is perhaps part of the point, the audience doesn’t necessarily have to live the experience to get it. Handsomely shot as a sultry version of a Dardennes film, Animal works best when it focuses on its protagonist’s withheld misery. Exarchou’s follow-up to her well-travelled debut Park is a solid effort that bites off more than it can chew, but is held together by a beautifully sad central performance.