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Devolution

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Festival de Cannes

MOVIE REVIEW
The Animal Kingdom (2023)

It's difficult to think of a more horrifying subject. Two years before the start of the film, something happened which meant certain people began turning into animals. As in, their bodies morphed into that of a creature; and their minds stopped being human minds and became animal ones. All the while this is happening these poor people are fully aware that it is happening but utterly powerless to stop it. And it's introduced by a father Francis (Romain Duris) and son Emile (an exceptional Paul Kircher) bickering in a car stuck in traffic, until Emile has had it and goes for a walk. Francis (whose name is a very good metaphor) chases him until one of the windows in a nearby ambulance shatters. They crouch down as the doors burst open and a paramedic is thrown out, before a man bursts out - a man with compress bandages around his face and one of his arms now a wing. The noises he makes aren't fully human and father and son stare in surprise as the winged man screams before running off over the roofs of the cars, paramedics giving chase. But they have seen all this before, of course. One of the first people to turn was Lana, Francis’s wife and Emile’s mother.

It could be a metaphor for old age, or disability, or the pandemic, any of which could have brought this film to the Cannes Film Festival, except that people who are old and disabled are still human; and it becomes increasingly clear over the course of the film that the people who turn really are not. There's a dreadful scene in a supermarket, when a person whose arms have become tentacles and whose face is no longer human is discovered hiding at the fish counter, then running for their freedom while shattering the displays around them. France has decided to imprison its creatures, building a special hospital camp in Gascony for them, so Francis and Emile move to a holiday camp nearby, where Francis gets a job as a chef and Emile starts school. They live in one of the holiday cottages and keep their connection with the creatures to themselves, even after a transport van crashes and many of the creatures, including Lana, escape into a nature reserve that's hastily cordoned off. But the crash introduces Francis to Julia (the quietly excellent Adèle Exarchopoulos), a kind policewoman who's one of the very few people in authority who treats the creatures as the people they once were. It doesn't take long for her and Francis to get the measure of each other. In that supermarket Julia sees Francis looking at the hunting knives and asks him if he's going to war, while he looks at her shopping cart full of raw meat and asks if she's opening a steakhouse. The army has been brought in so of course the police have sent their female colleague to do the grocery run. Francis shrugs knowingly and in their looking at each other a little light enters the world.

But as this unhoped-for ally means Francis’s search for Lana might get a little easier, Emile has his own problems beyond that of a new school and a cute girl named Nina (Billie Blain). Suffice to say Emile begins venturing into the nature reserve on his own, where he finds the winged man, Fix (Tom Mercier), who now has two wings and is trying to teach himself to fly. Emile brings food and finds a fallen tree over water as a much safer launching point for Fix's efforts. But the truth will out, always, especially if the truth is inside the body. And the inescapable horror only increases, as Francis desperately searches for Lana, Emile desperately searches for himself and the community tries to decide what is to be done.

There's an absolutely riveting sequence after a town fair, where a group of male stilt walkers do a dance around a maypole, only for the shout to go up that some creatures have been spotted nearby. Shotguns are handed out and the stilt walkers give chase through a wheat field, able to see over the stalks as someone, or something, runs for their life. The intertwined nature of the beauty and the horror is done through some of the best special effects in some time, an incredible mix of physical makeup – the raised goosebumps on Fix's skin, for example – and judiciously used C.G.I., such as when a creature searching for food outside Francis's restaurant makes an incredible mess. Director Thomas Cailley (who cowrote the script with Pauline Munier), cinematographer David Cailley and a special effects crew led by Pascal Molina have all done exceptional work here, married with that star-making performance from Mr. Kircher, a teenage boy whose uncontrollable hormones lead him down a life path no one could ever have expected. All the actors are exceptional, especially Mr. Mercier – who plays a man shedding his humanity like dirty laundry, who can only accept his fate and attempt to find what joy he still can in the midst of this horror – and Mr. Duris, who refuses to give into his grief or compromise his sense of right and wrong in the face of the most incredible pressure.

But even as all these things and people morph and alter into unbearably indescribable things, what this is above all is a story about love. The love that Francis has for his child and for his wife, whatever she has become (we do find out, but it shouldn't be spoiled), and of Emile’s love for his parents despite being a teenager who knows better. There's also Nina's awkward attempts to befriend Emile via her French horn, a kind coworker whose hidden depths Francis is delighted to discover; and Julia's willingness to stretch the limits of her authority for the greater good. This is an intensely upsetting and emotional film that asks ourselves to consider the limits of our bodies and our empathy both, and whether we can do more than we think we are capable of. It's such a dark love story, but an unmissable one.

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