Katharina Mückstein’s L’animale follows a young woman’s struggle to reconcile her inner nature with the labels and expectations that have been imposed on her, and it is through Mückstein’s disparate approaches to directing and writing that a similar push-and-pull between the organic and the contrived can be observed. Though the script often threatens to reduce its lead’s journey to the predictable beats of adolescent self-discovery, the story’s gently paced execution finds life and texture in the pockets of stillness between the plot’s mechanistic movements.
Likewise, the young Mati (Sophie Stockinger) herself is generally at her most content when she isn’t being pulled along by the wants and schemes of others, most notably her veterinarian mother who’s first seen pressuring her daughter to wear “a proper bra” that shows off her bust. Just as the mother spends her days treating animals with cold detachment, she approaches her home life in terms of plans and templates to be honored in spite of personal desire, mapping out a career path for her dispassionate daughter while ignoring her closeted husband’s affairs.
In the film’s opening passages, Mati’s parent-free refuge is the local bike park, where she holds her own with the local boys while hiding her curves under a heavily padded rider’s outfit. But while she appears comfortable with her role as a de facto male in the group, the atmosphere sours once some neighborhood girls enter the picture. As the worst hormonal tendencies of her male peers come rising to the surface, Mati finds herself complicit in a pair of public harassment incidents, while her status as one of the boys shows its limits once her best friend Sebastian develops feelings for her.
It isn’t long before this social circle becomes another constrictive environment for Mati to escape from, and her solace arrives via one of the woman that the gang previously pestered. It’s a moment of endearing awkwardness when Mati bumps into Carla at the former’s part-time job, as Carla intuitively picks up on her nervous, guilt-ridden demeanor and wordlessly forgives Mati for her former callousness. From here, Mückstein communicates the emerging feelings of intimacy between the pair with a lightness of touch that transcends the familiarity of their forbidden relationship’s arc.
Elsewhere, the film doesn’t always fare so well in redeeming its clichés, especially in its use of classroom discussions to hammer in the drama’s themes of freedom and fear. As with Mückstein’s poignant 2013 feature Talea — a work that benefits from a script that’s less hands-on in its conflict-building — L’animale often thrives in stretches of silence, solitude and alienation.
A sequence where Mati is goaded by her increasingly hostile friends into trashing Carla’s workplace, for instance, is trite in its portrayal of adolescent peer pressure until the camera settles on Mati’s face in the aftermath, quietly processing her anxiety and shame while she rides away with the mob. The film’s Magnolia-style sing-along section, on the other hand, proves jarringly ostentatious, while granting Mati and her similarly forlorn friends and family several minutes of pop catharsis that Mückstein otherwise finds tension in denying her subjects.
Regardless of such attempts to impress, L’animale is littered with moments that interest less for the human conflict unfolding and more for the rural scenery that surrounds and ultimately immerses the cast. Though the film opens in the barren environment of the biker park, the small town’s local greenery becomes gradually more prominent as the feature progresses, with Michael Schindegger’s cinematography finding rich texture in a natural landscape that’s always watching or concealing the private pleasures and anxieties of its characters.
The increasingly uncontainable presence of nature stands as an unruly counterpoint to the clinical outlook offered by Mati’s vet mother, and it’s a contrast that accentuates why L’animale works in spite of the compromises that pervade its being. Though the film may try to push its characters into a predetermined path of conflict and personal epiphany, more elusive forms of life can’t help but flood the frame and intrigue with effortless and unutterable tales of their own.