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Reviews of the Lab Young Critics

Les Arcs International Competition: "Animal"

By Emilie Mahé

In competition with eight other European feature films at this, 15th edition of Les Arcs festival, Greek director Sofia Exarchou's second film Animal takes us behind the scenes of an island vacation resort. Far from idealized images of turquoise waters and white sands, we follow a rag-tag international group of “animateurs”. Among them is Kalia, played by Dimitra Vlagopoulou (Exarchou's debut Park) who has just received the Award for Best Interpretation at Les Arcs, after winning the Best Actress Award at the Locarno Film Festival, where the film world-premiered, as well as at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, where the film also triumphed, scooping the Golden Alexander in International Competition. 

Throughout the summer, this troupe, led by Kalia, dresses up in glitter and costumes to entertain tourists with dance choreographies, aquagym sessions and bingo games. The group also includes Eva (first-timer Flomaria Papadaki), a shy-looking young recruit. Exarchou swings between the two characters' points of view; Kalia's weariness and fatigue of being trapped in a repetitive world, and the innocent gaze of Eva’s eyes discovering an unfamiliar environment, using them to reveal the inner workings of the staff community and their pursuit of creating artificial paradises.

The film opens with scenes of bodies in motion, interwoven with images of fish wriggling in an aquarium, an eloquent metaphor for Kalia's life going around in a circle. She is always drawn to the sea, the element that allows her to escape. The last show she stages, the 'fish dance’, reflects this turmoil through a choreography of camera movement, dance and lingering glances, underlined by dub and techno artist Wolfgang Frisch's electronic score.

Monika Lenczewska’s camera is often trained on Kalia who becomes increasingly damaged as the film progresses, and her inner pain is reflected in her body: just as she staples her knee to fix a wound, she takes medication to repair her ailing self. Her body, and bodies in general, are captured in at times raw, even brutal ways, within this toxic environment littered with drugs, alcohol, sexualization and a precarious lifestyle masked by sparkles and false smiles.

Through hand-held close-ups, the director places the viewer as a third party within the group, reinforcing the connection with characters and creating a realistic environment with a desaturated colour palette of brown, beige and blue-grey tones. These hues reflect Kalia's state of mind, underlining her bitterness and emotional complexity, and the overall aesthetics create a gloomy atmosphere in a supposed place of celebration and joy. It's a subtle visual representation of the contrast between the festive exterior and the darker, more introspective interior of the central character.

Exarchou immerses us in the life of vacation resort workers, yet the film could benefit from a deeper exploration of the social conditions in Greece rather than focusing solely on the psychological angle. Its occasionally stretched-out and repetitive feel might be a result of the lack of thematic diversity. Topics such as mass tourism, seasonal economic migration and social circumstances are touched upon, but for the audience to empathize with the characters' struggle, a more comprehensive and engaging vision of the environment could have made the film more compelling, while still maintaining its focus on the psychological aspect and emotional experience of the flawed heroine.

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