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Animals (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"Off-kilter without ever seeming inaccessible."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Greg Zglinski at times gleefully dispenses with basic narrative logic and consistency in "Animals", and often seems to taunt the viewers who would be inclined to to navigate it on the basis of symbolism or some sort of dream logic besides. Instead, he takes a simple-seeming situation, loads it with inconsistency and alternate realities, and tells the audience good luck with that. But for all that his movie is peculiar and self-contradictory, it's never exactly confusing, letting the audience both digest and laugh at its strangeness.

It opens with a set of quick snapshots - popular chef Nick (Philipp Hochmair) chatting with customers at his restaurant, his wife Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) practicing asking him about the affair she's sure he's having, and a woman throwing herself out the window of her apartment. The camera implies she disappears before hitting the street, though, and soon we're seeing Nick and Anna preparing for a six-month working trip to Switzerland, where Nick will collect local recipes and Anna will work on her first novel for adults after many successful children's books. Mischa (Mona Petri), a friend of a friend of Nick's, will apartment-sit. All well and good, except for the furtive call from Nick's depressed lover Andrea (whose familiar window is directly above their own), the sheep Nick hits with his car on the way, and how, after Andrea finally does jump, her ex-boyfriend Harald (Michael Ostrowski) comes to Nick's apartment to confront him, only to be certain that Mischa is actually Andrea.

There's more strangeness on tap - more doppelgangers, missing time, memories that seemingly come from the future rather than the past, doors in both Mischa's borrowed apartment and the cottage rented by Anna and Nick that don't open, etc. - and though Zglinski initially seems to offer a logical explanation in how both Anna and Mischa have sustained a head injury that they don't necessarily tend as well as they should, that soon proves not to be enough; the men are also seeing double. And yet, as the movie goes on, the idea that there might be some sort of in-story explanation becomes less important. After all, as the potential concussions remind us, human memory is not a perfect mechanism. Maybe, when we see things from Anna's perspective, she's confusing faces because in her mind, the two people already both represent her husband's infidelity. Things are shown, shown not to have happened, and then happen later, but that can represent a struggle - Andrea seems depressed the one time the viewer sees her, and it's not hard to see her as contemplating suicide every day, and this is the day she finally goes through with it. Maybe what seems prophetic is just a coincidence, or influenced by the earlier impression. On top of that, Anna is writing a book about a woman who kills her husband. Life is a series of reflections, roads not taken, and things which seem inevitable at the time, imperfectly recorded by a process we do not truly understand.

But, as the audience is storing these observations and ideas up to ponder them later, it can laugh at the absurdity of how they present themselves. And there's plenty of that - as Mischa's exploration of the flat and flirtation with the doctor who tended to her injury yields plenty of eventually self-aware laughs, and when Anna's paranoia starts to take on a particularly absurd form, that's pretty funny as well. But for all that Zglinski is perhaps preparing the audience for never having a real answer, he's certainly able to elicit a tingle from the various mysteries - the nuggets that he drops (working from an original script by the late Jörg Kalt) always intrigue, and he's careful to build things that, even when things contradict, it's not something that breaks the viewer's interest, making sure that there are enough parallels and overlap that it feels like things are all moving in the same direction.

There's some neat filmmaking involved with that - though the apartment and the cottage are very different environments, they feel like the same space, with the doors that Mischa and Anna can't open especially feeling like they are always shot the same way, taking up the same fraction of the screen from the same perspective. Meanwhile, though Andrea's apartment logically has the same floorplan as Anna's and Nick's, it doesn't feel like the same place at all, as her sloppy, untidied lack of care contrasts with the austere, closed-up hallway that is the most frequent image of her downstairs neighbors' place. There's often a life to the city-based scenes that is often lacking in Switzerland, though the beauty of Anna's surroundings often looks homey rather than empty.

That's in some ways a reflection on Birgit Minichmayr's tricky performance as Anna. She's not happy - she's deeply frustrated and angry much of the time, in fact - and that's always around her even when she can't express it, though not necessarily in the concentrated, intense way that would bring things down. Compared to her, Philipp Hochmair's Nick can often be a cipher, a man whose geniality can both lead to affairs and motivate him to try to make things right with his wife. They're an interesting pair on screen, often abrasive or seeming to go through the motions, but there are moments, especially toward the end, where some remnant of the chemistry that originally put them together remains and comes forward. Mona Petri, meanwhile, mostly gets a more upbeat and optimistic role to play as Mischa, with enjoyably casual reactions toward strangeness and potential, although when she gets to have genuine freak-out moments, they're good too.

"Animals" will, I suspect, be a fun one to rewatch; it's got a lot more packed away than can be easily accessed in real-time, but unlike a lot of movies that push strict literality aside, it doesn't demand to only be seen as a code to be decrypted or just a bunch of symbols escaped from a story. It's highly-watchable and satisfying even as it leaves the viewer wondering what they just saw.

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originally posted: 07/19/17 06:52:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Greg Zglinski

Written by
  Greg Zglinski
  Jörg Kalt

  Birgit Minichmayr
  Philipp Hochmair
  Mona Petri

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