Festival programming is a major undertaking. As someone who has programmed a six feature festival program, I can attest that even something that small has exceptional inherent complexity in what to show and when. I can only imagine what it is like marshaling some coherence into three weeks and over a hundred films like at MIFF. All that said, I would be interested to know the rationale for programming When Animals Dream (2014) as an 11:30pm screening. I really like this film, but it is sloooooow. That late, a little pep is always appreciated.
Set on a small port town on the Danish coast, the film focuses on Marie who tends to her ailing mother, hand feeding her and taking her out for walks. Whilst this is a film concerned with the supernatural, these early sequences are particularly grounded in reality. The scenes of tending to a loved one, a shell of their old self, encapsulates fully the experience that I have witnessed people in my family go through. When Marie gets a job at the local fish processing factory she is immediately subjected to misogynist abuse and harassment. When Animals Dream is a film that is clearly looking at sexism and feminism, both in overt narrative points like that one and much more subtle ways too. In terms of pure cinematic enjoyment, this is a film that occasionally is guilty of being too slow and ponderous. But there are some great moments too and the practical effects are so fine and impressive in their rendering of a werewolf, that there is joy to be found in the appreciation of those. These storytelling and presentation aspects of the film create an enjoyable enough platform for the film to successfully dig a little deeper and say a little something more about present day society.
The film is soaked in mythology which is something that is not seen enough from contemporary horror. Much of it comes from the salt crusted Danish coastal setting, shot in lowish light with the colour seemingly washed away by the sea. That imbues so much of the action with a haunting quality that for me simultaneously invoked Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Stoker’s “Dracula”. The genetic lycanthropy of the film is similarly myth-like. Passed through the generations, to successive women who are then feared and ostracised by the community, it is grounded in real life tales of women having been accused of witchcraft and traditionally treated in similar ways. The film is overtly, delightfully feminist with readings that look back and those that are contemporary. This is how women are treated when they become too powerful, whether in the workplace or in this case, when they turn unto an utterly badass werewolf. They are feared by the men who surround them and they feel their dominant position has to be asserted. The narrative also is about empowerment and tellingly about who should have control over a woman’s body. A scene where there is a forcible attempt to medicate Marie sums up a perspective on a woman’s body and who should be making the choices about it. Even though I had issues with some of the film on a sheer enjoyment level, so many of the complex ideas in the film are really intelligently communicated, that I would really like to revisit the film soon.
In terms of narrative punch and enjoyment, When Animals Dream is a little up and down. It is a little slow and in terms of horror thrills it comes in at the lower end of the scale. But in terms of examining really interesting ideas through the prism of a traditional style werewolf narrative, the film definitely has a lot to say and it says it through a great central character.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs