In The Animal Kingdom, an Un Certain Regard-selected science-fiction romp from France, human-animal mutations are the new norm. Director Thomas Cailley begins things in media res with a familiar disaster-movie scene: François (Romain Duris) and Émile (Paul Kircher)––father and son, respectively––are stuck in traffic, making chit-chat, when something slowly begins capturing the attention of other drivers. An ambulance across the way begins to rumble. Then a man with a large winged arm bursts out, causing some damage before scurrying down a tunnel. Only mildly ruffled, François exchanges a jaded aphorism with another driver over: “Strange times.”
That blasé mood provides an attractive entry point to Cailley’s world: the mutants in The Animal Kingdom are a fledgling phenomenon, but the unaffected are still trying to get to work on time. At film’s start, François (Gen X, anti-establishment) is taking Émile (Gen Z, perennially anxious) to visit his mother, who is one of the unlucky few. Cailley plays this early reunion like a sequence in a horror movie––first showing a scratch mark on the wall, then an audible grunt, then the close-up of a whisker––but there isn’t the sense of immediate danger. As we learn, the duo haven’t hit the road to escape an onslaught; they’re simply moving to a new town. The outbreak is ostensibly under control, with mutants like Émile’s mother being rounded-up and locked in facilities. Whether their minds and souls remain unchanged is the great unknown. So far, so good.
Things begin to get a little messy––splintering into disjointed strands––when a group of mutants, including mom, escape. Cailley and his co-writer Pauline Munier’s main arc focuses on Émile’s coming-of-age: new school, love interest, new friends, etc, but also a new regiment of daily grooming. This involves him yanking out pointy nails, plucking stubborn back hairs, and struggling to control some animalistic tendencies. (As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough.) There are the roots of an allegory here, but Cailley (perhaps wisely) leaves deeper readings at the viewer’s discretion, instead offering a more one-size-fits-all take on xenophobia. What really dilutes Animal Kingdom‘s gnarlier aspects is a subplot involving two escaped mutants with whom Émile strikes up a friendship. The film retains its aesthetic rough edges in these scenes, but its weariness is replaced by something vaguely cloying (not to mention the obvious shades of greater films).
For all that, there are times The Animal Kingdom delivers on the promise of its ideas. In one imaginative moment, during a supermarket chase, Émile discovers what looks like a hard-shelled armadillo girl hiding below the fruit and vegetables. In another, the director and his team (including cinematographer David Cailley and production designer Julia Lemaire) conjure the remarkable image of a human-shaped torso gliding through long grass, its skin slick as a python’s. These help build an atmosphere that pays off with a wonderful sequence in the film’s third act. Could it not have spent more time letting its freak flag fly? Room is made for the always-welcome Adèle Exarchopoulos, watchful as a local cop, but it’s ultimately a redundant part. The father-son relationship is a well-acted two-hander (Duris’ performance is particularly memorable), but the film seems determined to fix their relationship (and enjoy the emotional payoff) without really breaking it in the first place.
Watching it recently at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, the mind wandered to some other creature features that broke from Un Certain Regard in recent years––White God, Border, and Lamb. The Animal Kingdom is on the better end of that spectrum, but it’s still an uneven beast.
The Animal Kingdom screened at Thessaloniki Film Festival and will be released by Magnolia Pictures in 2024.