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Sofia Exarchou Animal Review

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Animal | 2023 Locarno Film Festival Review

Animal | 2023 Locarno Film Festival Review

Boogie Nights: Exarchou Doses Summertime Sadness in Achy Melodrama

For anyone who’s ever wondered what life might be like for employees at any tourist trap destination, Greek director Sofia Exarchou offers up something rather disconcerting with her sophomore film, Animal. Sure, there are other films exemplifying the tight-knit bond which exists between these makeshift families in carnivalesque environments, but these usually exist on categorical extremes. For every tantalizing toxic cousin of Nightmare Alley, there’s the sun-dappled sentiment of Adventureland (2009) or The Way Way Back (2013). Exarchou instead paints a painful character portrait of less easily defined ennui in the inherent stagnation of seasonal employment, the kind enhanced in settings intended for adult entertainment, where boundaries are easily blurred, breeding despair for participants who eventually are diminished by their self-inflicted purgatory. As her moody narrative takes shape around two women, one who’s reached a breaking point of emotional exhaustion while the other is just embarking on the same doomed trajectory, Exarchou tightens the screws around them, their anguish is obscured by their occupational expectations.

As the tourist season ramps up at popular all-inclusive summer resort Hotel Mirage, a group of ‘animatuers,’ staff hired to encourage audience participation in the establishment’s nighttime entertainment options, gather for customary icebreakers and group bonding. Of the returning ‘staff,’ Kalia (Dimitra Vlagopoulou) strikes up a camaraderie with one of the newcomers, seventeen-year-old Eva (Flormaria Papadaki). Initially, their work seems innocent enough, posing as volunteers to get the hotel’s visitors to drink more, sing karaoke, and attend various themed activities in the bar. Kalia seemingly has a carefree relationship with her male colleagues and manager, but as the summer progresses, respect seems to wear thin after endless long nights filled with too much alcohol and inevitable bursts of sexuality. Instead of having an epiphany after an injurious night at the bar, Kalia seems to get sucked into an emotional tailspin, no longer able to avoid reading the writing on the wall regarding a job, and perhaps a life, which should feel a lot better than it does.

Animal bears the same thematic resonance as Exarchou’s 2016 debut, Park, a film about the straggling remains of the Athens Olympic Village a decade after the event transpired, where the humans and creatures inhabiting its ruins recall an early Harmony Korine experience. This time around, Dimitra Vlagopoulou, who starred in Park, exists as the same metaphor as the Olympic ghost town, hurtling towards a diminishment she may never be able to return from. Drifting through her ‘shifts’ as tourist season ratchets up at Hotel Mirage, Exarchou employs the same kind of sobering docu-hybrid approach, as we’re initially unsure of where Kalia’s persona begins and ends. Eventually, it would appear she’s no longer quite sure herself, resorting to sordid creature comforts with co-workers which suggests she’s searching to reclaim feelings burned away long ago. The lack of concern the hotel feels for its staff becomes crystal clear when Kalia, blindfolded, crawls around on broken glass bottles during an inane foam party contest.

A pleasurable flirtation with a guest leads to a sexual interaction where Kalia at last runs out of a script, vulnerable to his gaze. There is a shocking intimacy to this sequence, where Kalia is asked personal questions about how she feels, forced to explain the significant wounds on her legs. It’s the first time where she explains her role as an ‘animateur’ for the tourists, in her own interpretation as an uber positive social lubricant. We spend a lot less time with Floria Papadaki’s Eva, a Polish emigre on the eve of turning eighteen, who has just joined the staff. As Kalia’s descent progresses, Exarchou’s inclusion of Eva is an eerie indication of the older woman’s fate, thrown out to pasture for younger, nubile blood.

There’s no sense of resolution for Kalia, but Exarchou instigates an emotional wallop for what serves as her last stand. With the season coming to an end and several guests drunkenly performing emotional goodbyes during karaoke, Kalia gets on stage to do her regular bit, posing as an Athens resident who is visited the hotel for the first time, vowing to come back again and again as a sort of three dimensional Yelp review. But with tears streaming out of her eyes, she tenaciously attempts to sing “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie,” the 1977 disco hit by Baccara, and the swelling catharsis leads to the kind of memorably ambiguous moment which allows Kalia to remain imprinted on your mind beyond the film credits.

Reviewed on August 3rd – 2023 Locarno Film Festival – International Competition section. 116 mins.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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