Good genre cinema is not just fun to watch, it touches on something true and real by imagining the wild and extraordinary. French director Thomas Cailley’s sophomore feature THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, which opened the Un Certain Regard sidebar at this year’s Cannes Film Festival last night, provides a shining example. Gripping and full of deliciously shocking moments, the sci-fi drama ultimately soars for what it says about being other, about our abuse of the natural world, and about the strength of a parent’s love. Beautiful stuff.
Set in a world where more and more people are mutating into animals, the story centers on restaurant cook François (Romain Duris) and his teenage son Émile (Paul Kircher), who are moving to the south of France to be close to a facility where their wife/mother Lana can be “treated” for her ongoing mutation. An accident led to the escape of numerous “creatures” from the facility, including Lana. Despite the potential danger, François is determined to find his wife while Émile, who’s trying to fit into the new school and deal with the troubles of adolescence, starts to experience changes in himself.
The screenplay by Cailley and co-writer Pauline Munier is bold, original, thought-provoking. With great efficiency they set up the strikingly bizarre premise. The first times we see those who have started mutating, including a glimpse of Lana during a hospital visit, communicate the film’s menacing tone that’s a far cry from the dark humor of, say THE LOBSTER. The affected don’t just turn into bunnies or kittens overnight. They gradually take on the traits of a certain animal while losing their capacities as human little by little. If the sight of a literal “birdman” or an actual squid-person isn’t distressing enough, the idea of children being attacked by their mother on pure, animalistic impulse certainly adds to the chill.
The film goes on to ask how we as a society would react to such crisis. Will people extend their empathy to those who are becoming less and less like ourselves? At what point is someone no longer human? Is it inhuman to treat a living being that is not entirely human? All compelling questions that give weight to a crazy idea and turn it into a profound, ever-timely allegory. Cailley shows superb command of tension in his direction, bringing numerous pulse-racing set-pieces to life with absolute confidence. His sensitive treatment of several key emotional scenes also kills. For this he has Duris and Kircher to thank. The former embodies the kind, unconditionally loving dad with such conviction it breaks your heart. The latter delivers a star-making performance as a boy who’s becoming something else. The awkward physicality, the gradual behavioral change, the struggle to hold onto a disappearing former self, every choice he makes lands. A scene towards the end of the film where the father-son duo attempt to get out of a high-stakes situation is so nerve-wrecking and wordlessly eloquent it sent tears to my eyes.
At 130 minutes, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM is a bit too long, but as a high-concept genre exercise with rich emotional payoff, it entertained and dazzled nonetheless.
Checking back with the official competition, a film that probably does not have entertainment value on its mind is Chinese director Wang Bing’s 212-min documentary YOUTH (SPRING). Shot between 2014 and 2019 in the town of Zhili, the so-called „garment capital“ of China, this first part of a planned 10-hour trilogy is pretty hardcore in form/structure, appears repetitive for long stretches of time, and yet asserts a uniquely hypnotic pull that can hardly be described.
It gets to the business of showing people sewing things right away (a trigger warning for those allergic to images and sounds of this activity – this film contains roughly three full hours of such footage). In crowded workshops that line entire city blocks of Zhili, men and women predominantly in their late teens and early twenties sit alongside each other, working away on their sewing machines. Incessant clacking fills the rooms. During breaks these young workers banter, flirt, argue, complain about their low pay. When a long day’s through, they retreat to moldy dormitories connected to the workshops, eat ramen and scroll their phones. This is the busy, not very attractive microcosm existing within the town that dresses the world.
Wang doesn’t use any narration. There are no interviews, talking heads or title cards either. His camera strictly observes, giving us an uncommented, freely interpretable record of his subjects’ lives. This approach could alienate audiences who rely on cues to find their way into a topic, or prefer to have a distinct theme/narrative as orientation. In the absence of these traditional tools of documentary filmmaking, YOUTH (SPRING) can come across as unorganized. But what Wang has created, compounded by the epic runtime, is in essence a singularly immersive experience. You feel like you’re witnessing life as it happens, in all its precious messiness. Or – in this case – life as it doesn’t happen for these young people who seem trapped in a dreamless, ambition-free place, the best years of their lives slipping away.