2019 Film Essays

On ‘Animals,’ Messiness and Vulnerability

Animals Movie FilmIn Sophie Hyde’s Animals, Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) are a type of messy that is cinematic by design. They party in a way that makes for excellent montages. They speak nearly exclusively in poetical loops, they’re romantic about the unromantic. They are not afraid of the scatological. They look good in smudged eyeliner. It’s a “squint-and-it-could-be-beautiful” type of messy, but what is perhaps most compelling is that messiness edges them closer and closer towards a feminist precipice.

Like many films, Animals is testimony to the resilient cacophony of female friendship. But what really stands out — bound up with the desire to tear at oneself and reject societal norms — is the question of “Do we stop ‘being feminists’ if we want the party of our youth to slow down a little?” Is that forfeiting something?

Animals’ plot, on paper, is familiar: a party-forged friendship is tested when Laura gets engaged. She feels abandoned by her unsupportive best friend Tyler, who in turn feels betrayed. The whole thing starts to unravel. But this isn’t on paper, and the emotional miscommunication is far more nuanced than the “Girls Gone Wild” genre usually allows. This is doubly impressive given that Animals is primarily about the page — writing, the ambition to write, the self-flagellation of trying to write — which is so often rendered dull or cringeworthy on screen.

While Shawkat plays Tyler as a self-styled Renaissance woman, it is Laura’s story that straddles two worlds, as she silently insists that she can thrive in both. Graigner’s thousand-mile stare does more to illustrate her internal tug of war than the endless drinks and endless drugs in endless bars could. She pings across the city, between her self-imposed responsibilities, in a series of night-time traversions. And the places say it all: there’s sensible fiancé Jim’s ordered open-plan flat, all exposed brickwork and muted linens. She comes to view it as a retreat, a place where she might be able to finally get her head down and write — the sort of place where she might finally become a more productive version of herself. Tyler’s house, on the other hand, is a sprawl of cavernous rooms with crushed velvet upholstery, grubby sash windows and flamboyant ornaments. It has a certain decadence, but it’s an expression rather than a workable living space. Laura’s own bedroom there is too tiny and cramped to do any writing in.

Animals Movie FilmAnimals wears The Feminist Question matter-of-factly. There’s a telling moment when Tyler states that getting married is at odds with their entire lives up to that point. “There’s no such thing as a modern wedding,” she states. Laura counters that “my feminism is about blazing a new path through old traditions.” It’s a poignant moment, but something doesn’t sit right either. It feels like self-deception; both Tyler and Laura are trying to wrap up too much in grand statements, trying to convince themselves that their life choices (or lack of them) are part of something bigger.

The Messy Young Woman on-screen is nothing new. On television, the likes of Fleabag and new U.S. show Euphoria unpick female hedonism in a way which points to a cultural moment. In fact, much of Animals’ promotional material positions it as the cinematic heir to Fleabag. There are even a number of parallel scenes — the awkward family dinner table scene, the dad who’s struggling, the sister who — on the surface — has her life together, the motif of the fox who comes looking at night. The coffee shop job. The conveniently well-off family, guarding against any real financial peril. The night, the night, the night.

But where Fleabag’s escapades never feel particularly perilous, the sex not particularly excessive, the drinking holes never particularly desperate or grotty, Animals actually goes there; a place of messiness you see in the faces of your actual friends, unwashed at Sunday brunch after being up for 48 hours. It goes wherever’s still open, drinks whatever’s cheap/cold and perpetuates under its own steam. It’s a messiness that’s feral, that probably warrants an “are you doing okay?” text. It has reached a point from where it cannot return, in order to validate its own existence.

Animals Movie FilmIn a recent British Vogue essay, Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine wrote about her younger, drunken self’s desire to be impervious to vulnerabilities. Reflecting on it from a distance, she writes: “It is an act of rebellion to remain present, to go against society’s desire for you to numb yourself, to look away. But we must not look away.” Looking away, of course, is our most childlike impulse when we want to pretend something doesn’t exist.

The camera, however, doesn’t look away. When Laura finds herself in Tyler’s bathroom at 11 a.m. with the wrong guy — the Bad for Her Poet — there’s a moment where the detritus of the night (fag ends, baggies, etc.) is suddenly brought into focus. In that instant, it’s over, and she gets out of there sharpish. It’s spot on. Sure, there’s a glamour to the party, but Hyde and writer Emma Jane Unsworth don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s any glamour in the aftermath.

This isn’t to say Animals is all bleak. It is legitimately funny. The dialogue is weird and spiky, and punchlines don’t always land where you expect them to. The two girls have a tightly-wound way of communicating which is entirely their own, and the audience must have the quick wit to untangle it. But the humour is defensive too, a type of linguistic jousting, preemptively seeing off any moments of emotional intimacy with ornate sentences and cavalier quotations. Jim asks Laura what her in-the-works novel is about: “about 10 pages,” she replies. Beating him to the punchline is a masterclass in deflection.

Animals doesn’t definitively answer it’s feminist question. I’m glad it doesn’t. Rather than making a film about the merits of giving up drink or ditching the guy, Hyde navigates somewhere far more raw. As Florence wrote to her fearless but fragile younger self: “It’s OK. You’re Ok. You can come down now. You’ve been screaming at the top of that tree for a bit too long.”

Lucy Holt (@La__Holt) is a writer based in London. She writes on films, books and art for publications including Corridor8, thisistomorrow and The Double Negative.

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