Sarajevo 2023 review: The Animal Kingdom (Thomas Cailley)

“The film has a genuine curiosity, which adds layers of deep humanity onto a work that questions the very nature of our species, told through a hauntingly beautiful socio-cultural fable.”

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters” – it isn’t clear whether or not Thomas Cailley was aware of these words by Antonio Gramsci, but they are certainly applicable to his most recent directorial outing, the incredible and deeply moving The Animal Kingdom (Le Règne Animal). A poignant subversion of science fiction conventions, delivered by a director who challenges himself (and succeeds wholeheartedly) to do something unique, examining monstrosity in new and intriguing ways. The film tells the story of a near-future in which humanity has become plagued by a disease that causes random people to mutate into grotesque combinations of humans and animals, and focuses on a young man as he deals with the early signs of his mutation. He is careful to hide it from those around him, knowing that once it is revealed he will be doomed to a harrowing life, locked away from the rest of the world. A deft blend of different genres such as science fiction, adventure drama and psychological thriller, helmed by someone telling a heartbreaking and funny story with a very peculiar but unquestionably strong vision – perhaps delivering his most concise and unusual film to date – The Animal Kingdom is quite an achievement. The film has a genuine curiosity, which adds layers of deep humanity onto a work that questions the very nature of our species, told through a hauntingly beautiful socio-cultural fable.

Monstrosity is a theme that we occasionally find portrayed in art, and if handled by someone with a strong vision the results can be magnificent. The Animal Kingdom takes a very simple premise and reworks it to become something extremely moving. It explores deeper themes that bend the conventions of different genres, reconfiguring them to form something unique, blurring the boundaries between them and creating an entirely new style of genre filmmaking, one in which the emphasis is not on the common tropes we usually find being used as crutches for weaker stories, but rather actively subverting and reworking them to make a more engaging and thrilling film. Even the appearance of the film is fascinating – it does not depend on special effects, and when they do occur they are used sparingly, primarily to supplement the story rather than define it. This puts focus on the story and its execution more than it does the spectacle, which is precisely why this film can feel so intimate despite quite an audacious storyline that could have very easily felt like a jumble of over-the-top ideas. The director’s insistence on avoiding cliches, and instead pursuing a more unusual approach to this narrative, is quite remarkable and helps us situate The Animal Kingdom within a new movement of science fiction, one that combines daring concepts with social realism, the oscillation between grit and grandeur being a major reason behind the film’s deeply compelling structure.

There are several questions we could ask over the course of watching The Animal Kingdom, such as whether this is simply an ambitious science fiction film, or a thinly veiled allegory for something deeper. It is quite clearly aiming to convey a particular message, but the details are intentionally left ambiguous, which is intrinsically tied to the film’s search for meaning. If we put aside the literal aspects of the film and its story and instead momentarily focus on the underlying ideas, we find that Cailley’s approach here is to take a bold, implausible story and make it seem realistic, which he does not only by using elements of social realism but also by making sure it seems authentic, both visually and narratively. This is a film primarily about outsiders and the feeling of growing up with the sense that you don’t exist in society. He uses the main character of Émile as a representation of a group of people who question their identity in some form, constantly having to hide who they are inside for the sake of fitting into society. At a glance these themes seem both obvious and standard for this kind of science fiction drama, but the director makes sure that there is always something of value to be found. The greatest achievement of The Animal Kingdom is that it conveys the message that the true monsters are not those we usually expect (and in this case, we find that the people not afflicted by this awful condition are the real villains who should be feared), without it becoming heavy-handed, instead manifesting as a beautiful, earnest celebration of individuality and the beauty of life as seen through the eyes of someone who undergoes the journey of self-acceptance.

Through the process of bringing this story to life, Cailley works with a small but substantial cast of actors, with the ensemble led by the astonishing Paul Kircher. One of the brightest young talents in contemporary world cinema, Kircher immediately established himself as someone to watch with his extraordinary performance in Winter Boy, and has now delivered an equally exceptional performance in this film. This is a challenging role, since it requires an actor willing to run the gamut of emotions in a way that would be hard for any performer, all the while taking on the physical aspects that are equally important in defining the character. He is willing to put in the work, and the result is a fascinating portrait of a young man finding his own identity and coming to terms with changes that he initially intends to hide, in fear of facing life-altering consequences, before realizing that he cannot conceal his identity forever. In many ways, Kircher’s performance is reminiscent of the protagonist in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, another instance of a story centred on a young man gradually growing into what some would consider a monster – and while it may not be as intensely focused on the theme of sexuality there are details to how Émile is characterized that bring these ideas to the forefront. He is joined by the always-compelling Romain Duris as his sympathetic father who navigates the grief of losing his wife to this disease, coupled with the sudden realization that his son is heading in the same direction. The Animal Kingdom is as much a statement on shifting identities as it is a father-son story, and Duris does well to elevate a character that could have been far less three-dimensional and compelling. For a film this ambitious, it is incredible that such grounded, nuanced performances were able to emerge in the process, one of the many reasons it warrants our attention.

Originality is a rare but valuable commodity, increasingly difficult to come across in contemporary cinema since we find far too many filmmakers adhering to conventions, and refusing to take the risk when it comes to telling bespoke stories. Cailley manages to go against this trend and handcrafts an astonishing work that is layered with meaning, all of which is displayed in detail throughout this film. Cailley has been making films for about a decade, yet it feels like The Animal Kingdom signals his emergence as a major talent, someone with a precise and interesting vision rather than just a rambunctious young filmmaker. His willingness to take risks is admirable, and is one of several reasons why this film is so successful. It is a well-crafted film that is both visually striking and narratively complex, and we find that the most meaningful aspects are those which emerge in the quieter moments, those focused on reflection and meditation on the more subtle themes. There are many of these scattered throughout the film, and when coupled with the extraordinary elements that occur alongside them (the cinematography by David Cailley and score by Andrea Laszlo De Simone in particular set the atmosphere), we find ourselves gladly getting lost in this world, which is strikingly beautiful and deeply compelling in terms of the story being told. Earnest and heartfelt, but never excessive in a way that feels like the rugged charm of the film is being lost, The Animal Kingdom is exceptional and a great example of how genre filmmaking does not need to be bound to cliches and conventions, and that there is always something new to be said about seemingly common subjects.