Only the Animals: That’s What You Get, by David Bax
Dominik Moll’s Only the Animals opens on a shot of a young man riding a bike through the streets of what we’ll later learn is Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s largest city. Strapped to his back like a backpack is goat who is very much alive and very much confused, judging by its repeated screams. It’s a surreal and intriguing introduction that will pay off in a satisfying manner. That’s the joy of Only the Animals, a movie that repeatedly sets up questions and mysteries and then resolves them in surprising ways, all while presenting us with a pessimistic but well-realized picture of humanity.
To realize this pretzel-plotted goal, Moll (who adapted the screenplay, along with Gilles Marchand, from a novel by Colin Niel) must rely heavily on coincidence. That’s a feature, not a bug, as the connections between characters become so unlikely that, by the end, you still may delight at the ones you didn’t see coming.
Moll keeps all the hectic happenings clear by adopting a narrative strategy I tend to associate with the short-lived television show Boomtown, focusing on one character at a time. Scenes in which two point of view characters overlap are covered twice. This isn’t Rashomon, though; the individual stories don’t contradict one another. We just get more context the more the movie goes on. Situations invite assumptions that are repeatedly disproved when we see the other side of things.
Only the Animals isn’t just an exercise in meticulous plotting, even though it does that well enough to justify a watch on its own. Unlike other “hyperlink” movies that emphasize invisible connections in such a manner as to implicitly endorse a sense of community and fraternity, this film’s wisest characters are the ones who want as little to do with others as possible. Both antisocial farmer Joseph (Damien Bonnard) and wealthy housewife Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) insist they prefer the company of pets and livestock to that of humans (and there you have your title). Of course, even if solitude is the right choice, Moll argues, that doesn’t mean it will shield you from the stupidity of others.
Only the Animals presents us with a vision of the world in which no human love or affection—no matter how powerfully felt—is given without the expectation of something in return. Loving an animal or receiving an animal’s affection is not a transaction. Meanwhile, we, the movie argues, are taxing the people we love into ruin.