French New Wave director and noted aficionado of non-linear storytelling Jean-Luc Godard was famously quoted as saying, “I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” The sheer number of good nonlinear films, where the events of the story are not shown in chronological order, has confirmed the validity of that notion. But the conceit needs to serve some purpose: advance a theme (2004’s “Crash”), add layers of mystery (“Memento”) or, admittedly on occasion, just be damn cool (“Pulp Fiction”).
In director Dominik Moll’s engrossing nonlinear thriller “Only the Animals,” the story jumps back and forth for all three of the above reasons. On its snowy surface, the movie is about five people who knowingly or unknowing play a role in the death of a woman in southern France. But Moll has something more probing in mind, and to get there he uses a clever structure that keeps our synapses firing. The film, which opened the Venice Days section of the 2019 Venice film festival, should be an easy pickup for a North American distributor and an equally easy sell for audiences who like their mystery thrillers frosty cold and constantly engaging.
“Only the Animals,” based on Colin Niel’s 2018 French novel “Seules les bêtes,” opens with a shot of a young black man bike riding through a dusty African village with a goat on his shoulders. If that’s not how we imagined the story of a mysterious disappearance in the mountains of France would begin, consider it Moll’s opening move. Immediately, he establishes an environment where what we’re seeing may not make sense now, but it will later, in a way that is often surprising but never cheap or manipulative.
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After Africa, it’s off to frigid southern France, where Alice (Laure Calamy), a married social worker having an affair with a client named Joseph (Damien Bonnard), sees an abandoned car on the side of the road. When police get around to questioning Joseph, he claims to know nothing about the missing driver but, in fact, she is dead, wrapped in a blanket and hidden away in a corner of his farmhouse.
And so it will go in a film that doesn’t ask you to keep up so much as it encourages you to sink into the mystery and go along for the ride. The movie is broken up into five chapters, as Moll and behind the scenes MVP, editor Laurent Rouan, smoothly jump back and forth in time to deepen the mystery, provide backstory or repeat previously spoken dialogue in order to give it new or additional meaning. When Alice’s husband Michel (Denis Ménochet, the farmer harboring Jews in the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”) comes home with a bloody face, we initially believe he got into a fight with Joseph. Give it time, and we’ll eventually learn that the origin of his injury involves the young man in Africa who pines for the big score as a “brouteur,” a cyber-scammer who trolls internet chat rooms trying to trick lonely hearts (“penguins” in scammer parlance) like Michel into sending them money.
If this fascinating section goes on too long and stretches the bounds of believability, it does feed into what “Only the Animals” is ultimately about: the lengths we go to escape loneliness. All five characters are pursuing an instinctual need to be loved, even if it leads to some bad choices. The most, if not only, emotionally moving chapter in the film belongs to the dead woman, a married bisexual named Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). After picking up a waitress named Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz, very affecting) at the restaurant where she works, the two begin sleeping together. While Evelyne soon makes it clear she’s in it for the sex, Marion has fallen deeply in love. Evelyne’s cruel behavior toward Marion suggests that heartlessly denying a basic emotional need to another person makes you a prime candidate to get bumped off.
“Only the Animals” is a mystery thriller with two mysteries to solve: who killed Evelyne and why does the primal pull of love and sex lead people to commit immoral acts. If there was a ready answer to the second question, it would be a better world. But we all have that tripwire moment when desire becomes intense enough to short-circuit our moral and intellectual hard wiring. Ultimately, Moll’s film is a cautionary tale for the lonely among us, a reminder that one step away from idealizing romance lies the risk of becoming a fool for love, which just might get you killed.