THE ANIMAL KINGDOM: Daring Science Fiction about the Surprising Effects of the Pandemic [REVIEW]

Thanks to The Animal Kingdom, we have something different in European cinema that is watched with fascination but also with an underlying sense of unease.

Tomasz Ludward

15 June 2024

animal kingdom

Winner of five Césars – The Animal Kingdom was one of the revelations of French cinema in 2023. The film’s director, Thomas Cailley, made a promise to the audience before the screening. In a manner typical of festival productions, he briefly spoke from the screen about the film’s creation process, emphasizing its multi-genre nature and the exceptional role of Paul Kircher as Emile. However, he did not mention the uniqueness of the screenplay itself, which, in a bold way, depicts the imaginary consequences of the pandemic, introducing us to a world previously unknown to French cinema.

The simplest way to describe Cailley’s film is as a science fiction adventure, starting from its scientific premise. Here lies a rather risky assumption. Due to gene mutations, people begin to gradually develop animal traits, leading to a complete metamorphosis. When we meet the characters of The Animal Kingdom, the epidemic has been ongoing for some time, and in the opening scene, they are stuck in a traffic jam – an overused symbol of chaos and escape in the face of apocalypse. However, Emile and his father Francoise are not fleeing from anything. They are on their way to the hospital to visit Emile’s mother, who, like dozens of other patients, is slowly immersing into the titular kingdom.

the animal kingdom

The relationship between humans and mutants presented here is devoid of familiar extremes. The mutants patiently wait their turn at the doctor, are treated humanely, and institutional care does not strip them of their dignity, no matter how ironically it may sound. This model is, of course, the director’s vision of the pandemic and its effects, entirely contained on a micro-scale.

Cailley avoids typical scare tactics such as screens reporting on affected metropolises or special quarantine zones. Instead, globalizing the epidemic is not his goal, which gives the entire phenomenon a local and intimate dimension. He leaves us in suspense, without answers to questions about its statistics, information about patient zero, or the disease’s progression across different hemispheres.

Therefore, the ecosystem of The Animal Kingdom is much smaller, both physically and symbolically. The father-son relationship develops mainly in a forest setting, which serves as a kind of crown for the film’s tree. The forest, as we know, can hide secrets, adventures, be a hideout, or a place where characters find something new. Its layers include a road movie, a coming-of-age story, initiations, and overcoming internal barriers. There are also comedic accents.

The main responsibility for this genre juggling rests on 23-year-old Paul Kircher, whose Emile is a new-old hero of independent cinema along the Loire. Firstly, he lands in a new environment, in a new school, just two months before the end of the school year. Secondly, it’s not the adaptation to the new environment that constitutes his acting strength. What makes him one of the most important characters in French cinema for many years is his sensitivity to the epidemic.

the animal kingdom

It is also worth highlighting Cailley’s technical elements. The characterization of the human-animal hybrids unsettlingly authenticates this improbable scenario, where the creatures bear physical remnants of their human shells. Their bodies merge into the narrative – like a patient’s chart – of a disappearing human, dramatically displaced by the ‘wild’ nature of the animal form. This supports a narrative that fosters empathy and understanding of their plight, especially since the changes progress slowly.

The Animal Kingdom maintains a realistic, occasionally adventurous tone up to the finale, which has some shortcomings. The final scenes could be less obvious, and the depiction of small towns less stereotypical – men from the south taking up arms and going on a ‘hunt,’ previously burning cats at the stake (yes!). Nonetheless, Cailley avoids the trap often fallen into by directors of similar films. His efforts to make this type of epidemic believable are credible. The social drama intertwined with it is handled creatively and with solid acting. It’s also worth watching the film in a theater to fully appreciate its layers.


Tomasz Ludward

He takes turns watching and listening to movies. Indecently often he returns to his favorite titles. Passionate moviegoer, appreciating the lack of commercials and dubbing. Exceptionally susceptible to literary adaptations. Currently in search of that one perfect streaming platform. Member of the International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA).

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