For Marie (Sonia Suhl), life in her small coastal town is simple and now that she is 16, she gets a job at the local fish processing plant to help bring money into her family – her father (Lars Mikkelsen) and her catatonic, wheelchair-bound mother (Sonja Richter). She catches the eye of a handsome young fisherman named Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), but not everything bodes well.
Doctor Larsen (Stig Hoffmeyer) warns her that she will likely inherit her mother’s debilitating condition and several bullying men at her new job have decided she is the perfect target for taunting and abuse. Then Marie feels her body beginning to change…
The werewolf has always been a potent metaphor. Typically used as a male id symbol, the concept of physical change has also been applied to awakening sexuality. On rare occasions (most notably the Canadian film Ginger Snaps) it has been applied to female sexuality.
When Animals Dream takes that a step further. Marie’s real identity, her real destiny, is as a werewolf. As she comes of age, she does not flee from this. Her mother, heavily-medicated by her controlling (but caring) father and her doctor, serves as a warning of what happens if she just toes the line.
The feminist statement of the film is writ large, right from the uncomfortably sexual opening scene where Marie is examined for bodily symptoms by Doctor Larsen. Marie is wanting freedom and independence which clearly scares the traditionalist menfolk of her town.
Daniel is the exception. He is the only one who accepts Marie’s true nature and does not fear her for it. But the others in the town do, and they will not tolerate Marie in their midst. The more she stands out from the crowd and defies expectations, the more she raises their ire.
Debutant director Jonas Alexander Arnby shows a remarkably assured hand. The performances are all low-key and believable, free from overt affectation. The shooting is handheld and his Denmark is a bleak, cold place where the sun never seems to shine. The setting is a place of dying tradition, where there is no future, superbly realised.
The pacing is careful and the plot itself is very simple. This, perhaps is the film’s weakness. The ideas it presents are evocative and powerful, but along the way entertainment is somewhat sacrificed. The progression to the climax is single-minded, leaving little room for twists or turns in the storyline and while the inexorability of the film is part of its message, it does adversely affect the more superficial thrills.
A reflective, delicate and sombre film, When Animals Dream is a low-key gem and a reminder of how powerful the metaphors of fantasy and horror films can be to reflect our real world. An excellent debut.
Just trailers, which is disappointing for a film of this thematic depth.
Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.