During the turn of the century, the New French Extremity film movement spread across France, potentially its most iconic film movement since the New Wave. These were dark, provocative films that aimed to dissect the country’s taboos and unrest. Many films within the movement are worth discussing, but I’m talking about this for one main reason. New French Extremity has some crazy horror films! There was a time when a horror fan went to NFE to really test their stamina, often with depression inducing results (it took me a long time to recover from Martyrs). The horror community embraced these films, and since the movement’s “end” in the early 2010s, French horror has been left in the shadow of New French Extremity. A few gems can be found throughout the last decade, but as of 2020, one surprise film may signal a second wave of arthouse horror in France. This is Anonymous Animals, the feature debut of Baptiste Rouveure.
Taking place somewhere in the countryside, Anonymous Animals centers on three overlapping stories involving unnamed individuals and the humanoid animals they are at the mercy of. To say, the shoe is on the other foot, is an understatement, as we follow a sheepdog-farmer taking in a man found on the side of the road, a deer-hunter quietly waiting for his next chase, and a horse-butcher working in a slaughterhouse with a slightly sadistic bull enforcer. There’s no explanation, or backstory, or even dialogue. The whole film is presented as an average day for the animals, as opposed to the humans trapped in a very inhumane situation. Are you getting it yet?
Not every film needs subtlety to be effective, and Anonymous Animals makes its point loud and clear without a single word uttered. In a its short runtime, the film combines the surreal nature of a Gary Larson Far Side comic, with the bluntness of a PETA documentary. The documentary feel is on full display, as Rouveure provides his own cinematography along with two other credited DPs, Kevin Brunet and Emmanuel Dauchy. The three provide a shallow, shaky, hand held look, from the perspective of the humans in their state of disarray. There are only a few times where it feels sloppy. This, however, is balanced out by still shots of the animals alone with their daily grind. Interestingly, they’re rarely center framed, usually off to the side, so the visuals can tell the story. It builds a tense atmosphere where you never feel clean watching this, and there’s not a scene that goes by that doesn’t feature a form of dust, dirt, or cobwebbing in the air.
Credit also has to be given to puppetry and mask effects, which are the closest thing to a star in the film. There’s a certain uncanny valley feel to how simple the effect is, with a realistic animal head on a human body, some being more expressive than others. The film does get that a dog is more expressive than a horse, and definitely more expressive than a deer with a poker face (put a gun in the deer’s hand and you’re set with the creepy factor).
Where Anonymous Animals really shines is in its sound design. When there’s no dialogue to hold your hand, you’re focused on what else you can hear. The animals still have their natural grunts and snarls, while displaying some common human traits that would be second nature in any other film; shame, brutality, maybe enjoying your job a little too much. There’s one gloriously creepy scene that the trailer definitely took advantage of, where we see the horse dining alone, eating a steak that we can assume he cut himself. The film keeps its distance, choosing to only focus on the sound of a horse savoring meat, and the slow chewing indicative of an appreciation of its own work. Other primary sounds we hear are the common sounds of a slaughterhouse; electricity whirring through lights and fences, machinery grinding in a close distance, and instruments being sharpened. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre influence is strong with this one, and I mean that as a high compliment.
Now, where the film succeeds, there are some first-time feature drawbacks and that comes in pacing and editing. Rouveure also edits his passion project, and is able to deliver some solid scenes, but choices are questionable. The film overuses cuts to black in between the three stories, which at first puts you at the same level of confusion and unease as the human characters, but progress to a point of tedium. It actually starts breaking tension at the third act, where suspense should be at its highest. This frustration is also amplified by the film’s disregard for time of day, as it cuts away from a story taking place at night to another story taking place during daylight. This isn’t a linear story by any means, but consistency is an important factor in creating mood.
By the end, I wasn’t disappointed with the experience. Even if I knew what the stories were building to, I was still daring myself not to shut my eyes by the end. I was dreading the inevitable and it left me feeling drained. So, in that sense, I got exactly what I wanted. Maybe I do wish the film was longer (it carries a runtime of one hour and four minutes), and had an extra story to the narrative. Anonymous Animals has the makings of an New French Extremity standout, and Rouveure is on the right track to leading a new generation of French horror. For a film that has sprouted up out of nowhere, I feel it will be worth discussion in due time. It’s an Orwellian dystopia we may have seen before, but all it takes is a little brute force to remind you how scary a different perspective can be. And at this point in the year, we could all use a lesson in perspective. Vive la New French Extremity.
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