“16-year old Marie lives on a small island with her seriously ill mother and her father, who takes care of the family. But suddenly mysterious deaths happen and Marie can feel something strange happening to her body.” — IMDb
When Animals Dream, Danish director Jonas Alexander Arnby’s feature film debut, is such a subtle masterpiece that I’m amazed both that it is his first full-length project and that it was hiding in plain sight on Netflix.
The opening credits set the tone — gorgeous, almost surreal landscapes and moody nighttime shots that look as though we’ve just awoken in the pre-dawn hours, bleary-eyed and sleepy — and the film is full of so much symbolism, so many touching moments, that you forget it’s horror at all.
It is moody and refreshing and soft-spoken, yet bold… as much a coming-of-age story as a horror film. It deals with themes of betrayal, secrecy, grief, misogyny, sexual development, and anger.
It follows Marie (a brilliant Sonia Suhl in her first role), a willowy 16-year-old living with her father (Lars Mikkelsen) and physically disabled mother (Sonja Richter) in a small fishing village in Denmark. She starts to notice some odd physical changes — a red rash here, an unusually hairy patch there — and when she is finally shown the connection between her burgeoning condition and her family, she has to make a decision about how to continue with her life…
** SPOILERS! **
I’m always so pleased when I stumble upon gems like this one. It had been sitting in my Netflix queue for months and I think it almost became invisible after a while… but I finally noticed it again and decided to dive in.
It’s not very often that you see a werewolf movie with a female werewolf, let alone one that is an adolescent girl. It is commonly — almost exclusively — a man experiencing his teeth sharpening and hair sprouting (An American Werewolf in London, Teen Wolf, Late Phases, etc). So seeing a young girl be the one undergoing the transformation — a condition passed along from her mother, leaving the man of the family as the outcast — was refreshing in a strange way.
Marie’s change happening in conjunction with her becoming more aware of the world around her and all of its shadows and secrets was perfect. She starts to realize how much her father and her doctor have hid from her — two older men who supposedly know best. She realizes that her mother’s inability to do anything besides stare straight ahead in her wheelchair has been thrust upon her as a means of subduing her. She sees firsthand how nasty men in general can be, getting leered at by Esben (Gustav Dyekjær Giese) at the fish processing plant and later pushed into a tub of fish parts as a bizarre welcoming ritual.
But she is also becoming more aware of her own sexuality, immediately setting her eyes on Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), another co-worker at the plant. Her shorter temper and increased aggression might be a symptom of her illness, but it’s also a necessary factor of not taking any crap, the sole bit of parting wisdom her father, Thor, gives her when she leaves home at the end.
So many of the film’s most touching scenes are ones that include little to no dialogue, which is such an impressive feat and a combination of incredible cinematography, acting, music, and style. The brief trip that Marie takes with her mother to the ocean, with the waves crashing under an oppressive grey sky… Daniel meeting her mother and squeezing her hand as he says hello… Marie initially showing her father the inflamed, hairy patch on her chest and his expression that is a perfect mix of somber fear and understanding… Marie finding her mother in the bathtub, motionless under the still water… even the night club scene, when not many words were exchanged but the mood is one of wildness finally being let loose.
Daniel is a perfect character, such a beacon in the dark. It shows her intuition in a way, since from the first time she laid eyes on him you know that she knew he was good, almost a primal instinct. He is insistent about her beauty and yet patient, he is steadfast, he is loyal, he is committed… even after he watches her murder a ship full of people, he holds her hand and says “I’m right here”. He’s the glimmer of hope, the proof that there is still good when everything else is going to shit.
I loved her transforming during their sex scene — it was primal and animalistic while also being sexy and mesmerizing. I initially thought it may end with her killing him, some deep, not fully understood desire taking control of her, but I soon saw that he was alive and well and knew he was there to stay.
They kept her transformation subtle, natural in an odd way. She doesn’t turn into some kind of animatronic beast or an almost cartoonish caricature. She looks more human than animal, like some kind of hybrid or a sophisticatedly evolved wolf. Her small size makes her seem an unlikely predator — same with her mother — but we soon see it just makes her more nimble.
I just loved every bit. I loved the strong feminist undertones. I loved Marie’s character becoming more defiant and confident with every scene, leaving behind any fear or apprehension in favor of strength and a little bit of healthy rage. I loved the stunning cinematography and the music that perfectly enhanced every scene without distracting or overpowering. Amazing!
Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: Jonas Alexander Arnby | Writer: Jonas Alexander Arnby, Rasmus Birch, Christoffer Boe | Music: Mikkel Hess | Cinematography: Niels Thastum | Starring: Sonia Suhl, Lars Mikkelsen, Sonja Richter, Jakob Oftebro, Stig Hoffmeyer, Mads Riisom, Esben Dalgaard Andersen, Gustav Dyekjær Giese