The Tokyo International Film Festival offers something that is rather rare in the city—the chance to see French films with English subtitles. I see as many as I can and am rarely disappointed. I went into Only the Animals knowing next to nothing about it.
I was a bit apprehensive in the first ten minutes, as Alice (Laure Calamy) makes her rounds in a mountainous area of France to see that farmers are following hygiene regulations for some unmentioned agency and has sex with lonesome farmer Joseph (Damien Bonnard). But this is not actually how the film begins. The scene before the opening title has a young man weaving through traffic in Côte d’Ivoire on a scooter with a live goat strapped to his back. He goes to an apartment, where he asks for Papa Sanou (Christian Ezan). This prologue signals that Alice’s story is going to go somewhere very different, and indeed it does.
When Alice sees a news report about a missing woman with a shot of an abandoned car she saw on her rounds, it is the first of many, many plot twists, as the structure of the film unfolds like a Chinese box, shifting to the perspectives a different characters, first Alice’s aloof husband Michel (Denis Ménochet, who is the highlight of the ensemble cast) then missing woman herself (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and a young, needy waitress (the intense Nadia Tereszkiewicz, who has a great career ahead of her). Some of the same scenes are replayed from the perspective of another character, until everything leads back to the young man on the scooter in Côte d’Ivoire (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin). He is told by the shaman Papa Senou “Chance is stronger than you”—a line that seems designed to take some of the stink off the incredible coincidences in the film. But more than chance of fate, the story is driven by impulse. All of the characters immediately give into their impulses, except for the local Gendarme (Bastien Bouillon), who doesn’t understand why people just don’t behave rationally. If they did, we wouldn’t have stories like this.