A grounded, frequently disturbing sci-fi/fantasy drama, The Animal Kingdom tears into chilling body horror elements and complex commentary about embracing the animal inside. Set in the near future, a “disease” characterized by physical, animalistic transformations has spread across the world. Those infected face intense outward discrimination, not to mention asylum experimentation. Embracing the obvious metaphors of the different or foreign being seen as dangerous, The Animal Kingdom begins as a bleak character study before evolving into a beautiful allegory. A wonderful performance from Winter Boy standout Paul Kircher only reinforces that he is a rising talent worth watching—here, he gives an undeniable powerhouse performance.
Teenage Emile (Kircher) and his father, François (Romain Duris), are forced to relocate down south in order to accommodate family matriarch Lana’s speciality treatment. Lana has come down with the strange disease that has resulted in the beginning stages of animalism. The duo find a cute vacation rental while hoping for Lana to become “normal” again. Emile starts a new school, where he is destined to stay for the next two months; François gets a job working for a local restaurant.
Early on, The Animal Kingdom depicts the creatures unfavorably: in the film’s opening scene, an eagle-esque human-animal hybrid bursts violently out of an ambulance. Their presence lurks even before François receives a concerning phone call. The bus transporting Lana has flipped during her transport to the Center, striking a tree in the midst of a violent storm. Now, all of the patients are roaming free deep in the forest, or have been killed in the crash trauma. In total, forty patients have gone missing, including Lana. Emile and François understandably freak out over this news, and make it their personal mission to track down Lana somewhere in the wild.
In addition to the uncertainty of Lana’s whereabouts, Emile begins to experience strange phenomena of his own. His strength becomes superhuman. His hearing is ultra-sensitive, and his back starts to curve horribly and grow hair. Claws jut out from underneath his nails. Co-writer/director Thomas Cailley hones in on the nastiness of Emile’s situation, letting the audience live vicariously through this gradual transformation. As Emile’s condition worsens, he bonds with bird-person Fix (Tom Mercier) deep within the forest. Their unlikely friendship blurs the lines between friend and foe. Fix’s face, mangled from attempted corrective surgery, aches in confusion. Emile shows him a place where Fix can literally spread his wings, practicing the art of taking flight. Elsewhere, the prejudiced refer to hybrid humans as “critters,” disgusted at their increasing prevalence.
At school, Emile latches onto the compassionate Nina (Billie Blain), one of the only people who seem patient and willing to embrace an outsider; on the flipside, François teams up with local officer Julia (Adèle Exarchopoulos), sympathetic to the family’s plight. These semi-separate storylines eventually converge—the father/son dynamic remains the strongest element of the film. Kircher ultimately steals the show, coughing up feathers and grappling with semi-normal coming-of-age problems. Emile’s animalistic quirks and spine-cracking fears are seeped in the same dark realism that colors the rest of The Animal Kingdom.
Initially, I was dreading the runtime of over two hours, yet soon enough, I did not want the film to end. For a feature approaching that length, The Animal Kingdom is tightly paced, and deeply emotional. Should we repress the animal inside, or embrace it? There is a beauty to the proceedings that plays wonderfully well thanks to a brilliant script from Cailley and Pauline Munier. The Animal Kingdom approaches the fear of otherness head-on, subtly defining a modern take on human transformations glimpses in cinema since the early days of 1941’s The Wolf Man. Just because others live in fear of us does not mean we have to live afraid of them. As any queer person will know, living one’s own truth rather than closeted behind the shadows is the only path to happiness.
The Animal Kingdom screened at 2023’s Fantastic Fest, and first showed at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.