The notion of the Butterly Effect is, unsurprisingly, a romantic and compelling one for filmmakers. From Sliding Doors and About Time through to the more obviously titled The Butterfly Effect, movies love playing with the notion of seemingly simple acts that have gargantuan consequences rippling through the world. That’s the idea at the heart of the French film Only the Animals, in which German-born director Dominik Moll weaves a bold, non-linear mystery tale that pivots around tragedy.
Moll, who also co-wrote the script with Gilles Marchand based on the novel of the same name, uses chapter headings to shift between the perspectives of different characters, who are all a part of the circumstances around the disappearance and death of wealthy Parisian woman Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). The first image we see is, bizarrely, of a man carrying a screaming goat in Côte d’Ivoire, before we are swiftly transported to sleepy, rural France. The relevance of the African opening only becomes clear much later.
In fact, much of the first movement focuses on home carer Alice (Laure Calamy), who is drifting from her farmer husband Michel (Denis Ménochet) and having an affair with client Joseph (Damien Bonnard). From this trio, the tendrils of the story explode outwards, taking in Paris waitress Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) and Ivorian internet con artist Armand (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin).
Only The Animals is an engrossing thriller, helped by its tricksy structure which provides just the right balance of detail and fog as it shows how the actions of others can reverberate through apparently unrelated lives. Details that seem perfunctory or confusing from one perspective are often illuminated by others as Moll delicately interweaves the constituent parts of his complex narrative with gripping flair.
It’s a triumph of structure and writing that the narrative is easy to follow, despite its twisty, non-linear machinations. There’s something deliciously satisfying about the way the movie clicks into place, with stranger elements — Armand’s visit to a spiritual leader to assist in his con — sitting alongside romantic melodrama and more kitchen sink concerns about rural admin.
Moll’s movie spans more than 3,000 miles, but illustrates with flair how the internet can close that distance in an instant. In a connected world, everyone’s actions affect everyone else — and that idea sits at the heart of Only the Animals. This is a movie in which every turn of the narrative screws highlights a new connection and the potential for suffering and tragedy at the altar of chance.
The film boasts an ensemble of terrific performances, from Ménochet’s increasingly unhinged farmer to Tereszkiewicz’s tormented young woman, cast adrift by her older lover and thrown into the orbit of a much wider conspiracy. Each performer is given the chance to anchor their own segment of the narrative, playing lead for a while and supporting for the rest, with Moll adjusting the tone nimbly and subtly to play to each character and performer’s strengths.
Ultimately, Only the Animals runs into the problem of many thrillers in that it doesn’t quite seem sure how to end. While the final scene does provide a potent narrative punch, it feels like the jumping off point for yet another new story rather than a conclusion that ties everything together. Perhaps Moll intended to convey this as a continuous tapestry, with the ripples spreading still further after the credits roll, but it leaves this compelling tale without the satisfying final puzzle piece.
Despite this, though, Only the Animals stands as a slick thriller with intriguing ideas about the connective tissue that increasingly bonds every human being to each other person on the Earth. It’s no longer acceptable to be insular and apathetic to those around you because your actions have consequences you do not have the capacity to foresee. As Armand’s spiritual leader says, “chance is greater than you”.
Dir: Dominik Moll
Scr: Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand
Cast: Denis Ménochet, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin, Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Bastien Bouillon
Prd: Simon Arnal, Caroline Benjo, Barbara Letellier, Carole Scotta
DOP: Patrick Ghiringhelli
Music: Benedikt Schiefer
Run time: 117 mins
Only The Animals is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema in the UK from 29th May.