“The Animal Kingdom”, in the running for 12 Césars, exudes a captivating poetic realism

For several months, an unknown virus has been wreaking havoc among the population. No vaccine has yet been found. Affected people do not develop respiratory problems, nor do they turn into zombies. What is special about this new pandemic? Anyone who is infected gradually and irrevocably transforms into a mutated animal: bird, fish, snake, wolf, etc. In the running for 12 Caesars, The animal kingdom offers a quite striking allegory that is both diverse and ecological.

Set in France in a future inseparable from the present, the film by Thomas Cailley (The fighters) is, essentially, a father-son story. Thus François (Romain Duris) and Émile (Paul Kircher) leave Paris to reach the south of the country, where Lana (Florence Deretz), the wife of the first and the mother of the second, must be interned with other mutants in a “reception center” (a prison, roughly speaking).

However, now the cell convoy leaves the road, and the detainees disappear into the wild – literally.

Now settled in a semi-rural area, François and Émile discover the animosity that many untransformed people harbor towards these “different” beings who are growing in number.

At the same time, we witness the slow metamorphosis of Émile towards a hybridization vaguely lupine (like her mother, who we see too little). A new student at the local high school, he has a crush on Nina (Billie Blain). Meanwhile, François, who has landed a job in a restaurant, meets Julia, a local police officer (Adèle Exarchopoulos).

This whole romantic-interrelational aspect captivates little, to tell the truth. Much more interesting are Emile’s strange “second puberty” as well as his forays into nature, where he befriends a birdman (Tom Mercier).

Note that the prosthetic and animatronic special effects, enhanced invisibly using digital tools, are absolutely fabulous.

Visual approach

Co-written by the director and by Pauline Munier, based on an idea from the latter, The animal kingdom summons distant or recent memories of a plethora of other films: Severeby Julia Ducournau, where a teenager discovers a cannibalistic appetite, The Lobster (Lobster), by Yorgos Lanthimos, where single people are changed into animals, or the many adaptations of the classic by HG Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau (Doctor Moreau’s Island), where a megalomaniac scientist creates half-human, half-beast beings.

Here, as in all these previous cases, there are metaphors in all directions.

What distinguishes The animal kingdom, in addition to the intimate father-son axis, it is the visual approach developed by Thomas Cailley in collaboration with his brother David Cailley, director of photography of the film. Which approach exudes a captivating poetic realism.

The sylvan sequences, filmed in a Gascony national park that has since burned down, are of great beauty.

Filmed using drones, the passage where Émile watches his friend take off gives us wings by proxy.

Fear of “others”

The interpretation turns out to be very solid. Paul Kircher, memorable in The high school student, by Christophe Honoré, however, eclipses his partners in the role of Émile. The young actor is more than perfect in the subtle evolution of his gestures.

It is also fascinating to see how, as Émile and the others transform, they flourish. However, this “new gender” development (subtext: gender identity) is poorly received by many people, who fear all these “others” with fur, scales or feathers.

Hence this somewhat conventional and lengthy third act, which culminates in the classic vindictiveness carried out by humans more monstrous than the monster they claim to be tracking (a legacy of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley). The film redeems itself by returning to its father-son focus at the ending.

Generally, The animal kingdom manages to seduce, intrigue, and make you think.

The animal kingdom

★★★ 1/2

Science fiction by Thomas Cailley. With Paul Kircher, Romain Duris, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Tom Mercier, Billie Blain, Florence Deretz. France, 2023, 128 minutes. Indoors.

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