Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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2024 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema opening film, Feb. 29


A father and son face species alteration


The French have gotten into time travel and other sci fi transformations in TV series; this time Thomas Cailley has done a feature film about a France besieged by a wandering infection that makes humans turn into frightening animal hybrids. The country is ripped apart, and medical science isn't finding solutions fast enough. Our focus is on a father, François Marindaze, and his 16-year-old son Émile. The film sometimes seems like no more than so-so M. Night Shyamalan. But look again. This is a French film, and there's the difference. François is played by Romain Duris and Émile by Paul Kircher, the son of Irène Jacob and Jérôme Kircher who starred in Christophe Honoré's recent Le lycéen/Winter Boy playing an unusually autobiographical version of his young self. In French cinematic terms, this is a heavy duo. They face chaos together, and apart, and it's a vivid, engaging struggle.

There may be comments about the special effects - notably of a man befriended by Émile called "Fix" who turns into a bird, played by Tom Mercier - and by the way the extraordinary part-French, part-Israeli actor Tom Mercier is a special effect in himself, and has been from when he burst on the scene with Nadav Lapid's 2019 [url=""]Synonymes [/url]- but the beauty of [IThe ]Animal Kingdom [/I] is how it maintains our credulity and excitement by not showing us much, just with the dismemberment of the back of an ambulance, the too-loud flutter of vast, barely seen wings.

There is the immediate human interest, and then, more distantly, there are the not-so-subtle political implications. The line is drawn pretty much down the middle between the liberals and humanists who want to work out a means of coexistence with the new hybrids whom people unflatteringly refer to as "beasts" or "critters" (bestioles, créatures), and the right wingers, the rednecks and meatheads who just want to go out with rifles and rockets and destroy them wherever they turn up.

Émile's mother has turned into one of them. But she is in medical care and a lot of them are to be transferred to the south (conveniently, where the rednecks live). François is fiercely loyal. He wants to protect her, and when Émile, very slowly, starts to turn, does all he can to protect him too. François, who is a cook, instantly gives up home and job and takes Emile south to be with his wife, Émile's "maman," putting Émile in a new school, where he has (with some difficulty) a girlfriend, and François must take a demotion to waiting table.

The tension of the tale is between how fast things went wrong and keep getting worse for mom (if these transformations are a degeneration and not just a change, which may be kept a little open) and how slowly things diverge for Émile. The tease of that puts most of the focus on the boy - though it's not certain whether the action of this film is simple and colorful enough to make it suitable for a young audience.

The pretty face and bee sting lips of Paul Kircher are never spoiled. His transformation is a nagging source of shame and covering up and a torment for him; but it's more subtle than the cases of his mom and Fix: more a matter of a rougher, higher ridge on his vertebral column, a light frizz of new body hair on his arms, odd excrescences on his fingernails. Something internal may be happening more rapidly, though. Where have you seen a sci-fi movie where you know someone has turned decisively into another, non-human species because he can't sign his name? But that's what happens here, and Cailley's writing is ingenious enough and his direction clear enough so that it works.

We wouldn't have predicted much about Thomas Cailley's new feature from his larky, enjoyable first one, completed a decade ago and widely seen here - ecept for a similar taste for skirting boundaries between ordinary and strange. It was called Les combattants ("Love at First Fight") and featuring Adèle Haenel who was to win international fame and prizes at Cannes with [url=""] Portrait of a Lady on Fire[/url] (2019) from the pen of her girlfriend (as we learned), the excellent Céline Sciamma. There's a strong woman in this one too, an officer of the Gendarmerie Nationale and almost-love interest for François called Julia played by another French star, Adèle Exarchopoulos. If we look at Cailley's 2018 TV series, film,"Ad Vitam," co-written and helmed with Sébastien Mounier, there he entered into the manipulated world of sci-fi we are plunged into with The Animal Kingdom.

The muscular earthiness of Romain Duris and the disarming directness of Paul Kircher - they don't look much alike, but he seems to be taking after his mother - make an engaging, powerful combination anchoring the film as father and son here, kept continually alive by Thomas Cailley's constant, explosive action in this film. But the film may seem to be teasing and playing with us too much, a little repetitious in its treatments of the various crises, though François' final accepting solution is a satisfying one. This did extremel well in France and deserves a respectful look from fans of understated sci-fi fantasy everywhere. It takes genre to a level of humanism that is exceptional.

The Animal Kingdom/Le regne animal, 128 mins., debuted at Cannes in Un Certain Regard May 17, 2023. Nominated for 12 César Awards including Best Director and Best Film, AlloCiné press rating 4.3 (86%), spectators 4.0 (80%). (This was perhaps the all-round best received French film in France last year.) It opens in theaters by Magnolia and on demand Mar. 15, 2024. Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York (Feb. 29-Mar. 10, 2024. Showtimes:
Thursday, February 29 at 6:00pm (Introduction with Thomas Cailley)
Thursday, February 29 at 9:00pm

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