If you can’t trust the talking cat — or perhaps the question should be if you can — whom do you trust? Such are brain-frying quandaries viewers may face deep into the darkness of “Animals,” a deliciously unhinged, blood-laced adult fairy tale from Swiss-Polish writer-director Greg Zglinski. Setting out with real-world levels of macabre nastiness as it wittily probes the marital faultlines between a bourgeois Viennese couple attempting a restorative Alpine getaway, the film takes a smooth, almost imperceptible left turn into Lynchian realms of illogic that will leave adventurous audiences both rapt and dazed, dreamily uncertain of where exactly they lost the plot. Unraveling this cat’s-cradle isn’t half as important or pleasurable as getting entangled in it to begin with; Zglinski’s espresso-dark humor and icy formal precision may nod to a host of expert cinematic mind-gamers, from Polanski to von Trier, at different intervals, but “Animals” gleefully cultivates its very own kind of crazy.
For Zglinski, who made an auspicious splash with his Venice-selected 2004 feature “Tout un hiver sans feu” but has since worked principally in television, this excitingly unidentified arthouse object — which premiered in Berlin’s Forum strand — should seal his singular auteur identity as it makes the international festival rounds. Commercial prospects are inevitably limited, but “Animals” is distinctively wild enough to lure daring boutique distributors, who would be wise to play up the film’s stylish psychological-horror trappings.
Zglinski and co-writer Jörg Kalt cite Dutch trompe l’oeil master M.C. Escher’s famous lithograph “Relativity” as a key initial inspiration for their disorientingly looped storytelling, which seems more obvious in practice than it does on paper, though it’s hardly as mathematical in execution. As identities, locations and states of consciousness that once seemed rationally separate gradually tumble into one another, it grows harder to determine where the nominally “real” and dreamed narratives of “Animals” begin or end — or whether they are simply in infinite, Escher-style balance. Before the madness fully kicks in, however, Zglinski sets up proceedings with the curt, subtle uncanniness of a Roald Dahl short story, as the fragile relationship between hotshot chef Nick (Philipp Hochmair) and his wife, children’s author Anna (Birgit Minichmayr, in her best role since Maren Ade’s “Everyone Else”), is sketched in sharp strokes, and half-erased just as quickly.
We swiftly learn that Nick has been carrying on an affair with his upstairs neighbor Andrea (Mona Petri), who fatally throws herself from her living-room window at the film’s outset. With Nick and Anna’s marriage on rocky ground, they leave the city for a reconciliatory six-month break in the Swiss Alps, leaving their apartment in the care of kooky housesitter Mischa — whose eerie resemblance to Andrea is the first sign that reality is about to be twisted drastically out of shape.
Needless to say, the country air proves less than soothingly therapeutic, as a series of unsettling run-ins with local fauna — a sheep-induced car accident, a Hitchcockian onslaught of suicidal birds, and sporadic visitations from an ominously well-spoken cat — plays hell with Anna’s nerves, not to mention those of the audience. Is Nick cheating on her again, with a village ice-cream seller who also looks identical to Andrea? Back in Vienna, has Mischa (or is it Andrea?) entered an existential wormhole of her own? And what lies behind the mysteriously locked doors in both the Vienna apartment and the Swiss chalet?
Answering questions is not on Zglinski’s agenda; he prefers to fan out the possibilities, via elegantly interlocked maybe-dream sequences and the disconcerting splicing of characters. First among equals in a collection of immaculate craft contributions — including cinematographer Piotr Jaxa’s crisply heightened lighting and Bartosz Chajdeck’s frisky, ironic score — must be editor Karina Ressler’s deft arrangement (and disarrangement) of all these narrative tunnels and trapdoors. Viewers willing to play along will accordingly navigate this rabbit warren in a multitude of ways. What some see purely as a cool, perverse experiment in story architecture may strike others as an emotionally heady, tangled metaphor for marital distrust and dysfunction: Amid the conflicting shards of (sur)reality in “Animals,” the brittle, raddled performances by Hochmair and, in particular, a fiercely on-edge Minichmayr are certainly human enough to hold onto.