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In 'The Animal Kingdom,' Humans Turn Into What They Truly Are: Animals

By Sara Clements | Film | March 19, 2024 |

By Sara Clements | Film | March 19, 2024 |


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Humans are animals. Every day we see another example of that fact. But what if humans became animals? In Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, humans choose which animal they will turn into if they can’t enter into a romantic relationship within 45 days. In the French, César Award-winning sci-fi film, The Animal Kingdom, however, turning into an animal isn’t a choice, nor is it because you can’t get a date. It’s a pandemic of the most fitting. When the COVID-19 pandemic first started, we were all watching Contagion. As the years passed, though, pandemic movies, especially ones directly about the reality we were all experiencing, became very unappealing. But now that we’re as close to “normal” as we’ll ever get, and the pandemic movie fatigue has started to go away, The Animal Kingdom is the one to watch.

Writer-director Thomas Cailley’s film, co-written by Pauline Munier, opens with a father and son, in the middle of an argument, witnessing screams erupt from inside an ambulance. The patient, who has a wing forming on one arm, breaks through the doors with immense strength and emits a screech that sounds prehistoric. “Strange days,” François (Romain Duris) says. Two years into this pandemic, seeing mutated humans is a reality he and his son, Émile (Paul Kircher), are pretty used to. Despite adapting to a new reality, doctors are no closer to figuring out what is causing these mutations. Naturally, the audience would have a lot of questions, and perhaps the answers could have been written, but it makes us feel the frustration and upset of those affected and reminds us of the unknowns of COVID-19’s early days.

François’s wife and Émile’s mother, Lana (Florence Deretz), is one of those infected. While doctors say she has stabilized, the changes she has gone through are jarring. Deep scratches line the walls of her hospital room, and the camera only lets the audience see a close-up of her eyes, but a low growl tells us all we need to know. These changes are frightening and upsetting, and seeing her in this state is also creating distance between the father and son duo. No matter how much François tries to bring a smile to Émile’s face, the teen still retreats within himself. Lana’s future is uncertain, but hope seems to be found in the south.

François and Émile move south to a sleepy town awakened by the screeches of those that many refer to as “critters.” A new research center provides hope for a cure. Encased within high concrete walls, it’s designed to “keep the monsters out,” as Émile says. The prejudice against these infected humans is on display as plainly as it is written in graffiti. This town is already on edge - and it only gets worse. When a massive storm blows in, creating chaos and destruction, 40 patients, including Lana, go missing. As François and Émile desperately try to find her before the military does, Émile starts to develop his own mutations, putting this relationship to the ultimate test.

The Animal Kingdom turns out to be a very emotional piece that can be interpreted as an allegory on queerness, especially as it reflects a familiar political climate of fearmongering with language used to ostracize. When Émile begins to make new discoveries about himself, he’s terrified. Not only because of what these changes mean but also because of how they will be received by people around him. Just like realizing you’re queer, you try to hide it during those early years. You do everything to cling to whatever is considered “normal.” In Émile’s case, he continues to go to school and hang out with friends like nothing’s wrong. There’s a loneliness of not knowing what’s happening to you, but he finds a friend in Fix (Tom Mercier). Like himself, Fix is also mutating. Together, they help each other better understand their transformation, creating scenes that feel joyous. They depict the solace you find within your own community.

The Animal Kingdom is a very beautiful, human piece, especially as we see the changing relationship between François and Émile. While it may seem all gloom and doom, the script does a fantastic job of balancing a heavy plot with much lighter moments. A scene like when the pair plays Lana’s favorite song goes from sad to jubilant in a second. The love between father and son is felt so strongly, with Duris capturing an almost unwavering protectiveness in his role. There’s bravery in a parent letting their child go, while the child fully embraces who they are. The film captures all of this in an invigorating way.

An excellent work of sci-fi, it’s no surprise that it won the César awards for categories like Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects. The sound design and cinematography both create an eerie atmosphere. The film’s makeup and effects are especially impressive as each mutated human captured looks different, with features of everything from mammals to birds to reptiles to even cephalopods. They’re never meant to scare like a horror movie monster. Each character, even just behind the eyes, still feels very human and this creates many beautiful moments and interactions throughout.

The Animal Kingdom is a profound exploration of fear and how it can drive us, but with a strong father-son story at its heart. It can feel a little too long, but with a fantastic cast and affecting performances, including a supporting turn from Adèle Exarchopoulos, it’s not to be missed.