If matters had gone totally to plan O Animal Cordial (Friendly Beast, 2017) would not have been director Gabriela Amaral’s debut feature-length film. As it was, with her initial project held up in funding, the director turned her attention to venting out her anger and frustration and out of that came the aforementioned film, which consequently caused a positive stir on the festival circuit the following year. Friendly Beast was partly inspired by the commonplace restaurant robberies in Amaral’s native Brazil — something her friends had suffered in real life — and partly inspired by her anger at the political climate, fuelled by the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2015. The result is very much a mood piece that uses absurdity and visceral horror as a metaphor for the charged and dangerous cultural climate. As the title would suggest the film plays on the notion that man may be friendly on the outside, but that inner beast still lurks within, waiting for the right trigger to be set free. There is more to it though…
At first glance, Friendly Beast is a difficult film to navigate. The clues are there, but little motive is given in any concrete form to explain why some of the characters act the way they do. Instead, the narrative is driven purely by instinct. It is a wild, dangerous instinct humanity has long struggled to suppress, witnessed in some of its ugliest and purest forms as the plot drives on to its violent climax. Of course, this isn’t a new topic for horror films. Time and time again, way back in the archives of Gothic fiction, the subject of dualism has been a key topic. Man’s struggle with his primal urges, especially when framed within subjects like religion, spirituality, or morality, is the bread and butter of the genre; seen most explicitly in texts such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And while these stories have traditionally allowed authors the freedom to tackle the perverse and taboo, there is always a price to pay at the end. Morality and justice must be seen to prevail in the traditional Gothic form.
When it came to cinema the same formula continued, only now the onus was almost exclusively on the literal monsters founded in traditional fiction: vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, ghosts, zombies, and of course the lycanthrope, all of which had been human at some point, now corrupt and contaminated, forced to live compromised existences tainted by Gothic monstrosity in their bestial form; their function to be destroyed by their civilized human alter-egos so that moral order may be upheld. By the sixties, the framework had shifted ever so slightly, in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to incorporate man as literal beast into the fold. Amaral has made no secret of the fact she feels deeply inspired by Hitchcock, and yet, she doesn’t follow his insistence on motive, pattern, logic, and instead abandons all of this, for something that defies explanation in a total subversion of all previous rules. Hitchcock, and his successive emulators, have used Freudian analysis to justify their own monstrous tales. And while the absence of this aspect in Friendly Beast can feel incredibly nihilistic in parts, the result is a uniquely liberating conclusion.
Gothic monsters may not seem at all relevant to a modern-set tension piece about a group of people in a restaurant, two of whom have seemingly lost their minds for some inexplicable reason. And yet, dig a little deeper and it is here that the real subversion comes in; at least when it comes to the character of Sara. Outwardly these are not the monsters of Stevenson, Bram Stoker, or Mary Shelley. There are no teeth, fangs, curses, or supernatural explanations. Likewise, this is no Hitchcock. At no point do we discover restaurant owner Inácio (Murilo Benício) was abused as a child, or some other psychoanalysis-based explanation for his outrageous behavior — although it is disclosed he has father issues. Despite this, there is a connection to these Gothic components, at least on a more fundamental level.
So what has pushed Inácio over the edge? We learn his wife is on his case, via a couple of telephone calls. The subtle kitchen drama at the start of the film leads us to believe he is not fully in control of his staff, who appear to tolerate and resent him. Further exploration introduces the notion he is a man under pressure to achieve success and recognition. Only he lacks talent. The true talent comes from his chef Djair (Irandhir Santos). In an early foreshadowing, we see Inácio act out an interview with a restaurant critic, supposedly claiming his recipes come from his own imagination, and inspiration. Later on, locked in the storeroom, it is revealed they are Djair’s creations. And it is through this tangled web we learn Inácio is a man whose sense of masculinity is frail, threatened by an emasculated position, who possesses a yearning for respect when he can only garner begrudged acquiescence from his staff. That is until he gets a gun in his hand, and experiences true power perhaps for the first time. In a similar move, Sara is the mirror of Inácio. She too appears to desire respect and admiration, but possesses such an obvious self-hatred — demonstrated through the scene in which she abuses herself in the mirror, shortly before the restaurant siege begins — that there seems to be little hope for her. Instead, she busies herself fawning and creeping around Inácio, who treats her like part of the furniture. It’s not her respect he’s after, given she doesn’t appear to have anything he really needs. That is, until he does need her to carry out his gruesome plan. And it is here that she experiences her own first sense of power also, by proxy, as Inácio’s second in command. It is a position she is quick to take advantage of.
Although all these explanations might justify what follows, when added up to the sum of all their parts, it’s not really enough. Not when you bring logic into the equation. For example, if Inácio is so keen to achieve critical acclaim, why would he blow all that out of the window, so he can run around his restaurant naked, killing people? It seems like the ultimate act of self-destruction when you pause to think about it. An explanation isn’t the name of the game for Amaral though, this is the bait-and-switch. From the first few frames of the film there is another message; far more subtle: man is a carnivorous bestial animal, disguised by the masks of civility and table manners. We see it in the animal carcass being carved up on Djair’s chopping board; we see it in the blood that seeps from Veronica’s steak. All of it hidden from public view by the illusion of civilization, and yet, still there on display if you look beyond the facade. Everyone appears to be comfortable with wearing their masks, apart from Inácio and Sara. These are the only characters we see in front of the mirror in the early scenes, and both are clearly disgusted by their own reflections. The masks are uncomfortable, ill-fitting, and neither character can bear to look at themselves. When they shed these masks, unleash the beast within, it’s a totally different story. Inácio, for example, stands proud in the mirror, basking in his sense of animality and power. “I am exactly who I want to be”, he proudly declares, before beating the retired cop to death in a scene that appears too brutal to be shown, if the horrific noise is anything to go by.
While Inácio’s unveiling to show the monster he really appears to be the trigger for matters to descend into violent absurdity, the true subversion comes from Sara’s similar unmasking. It is through Sara’s personal journey, from servile woman to libidinal beast, that the director moves into the transgressive territory. When we think of the traditional concept of a man turning into a beast the most obvious choice is the werewolf or lycanthrope. It is through narratives such as these, as established by Universal’s Wolfman series in particular, that men are able to exert their hidden animal violence when they morph into beast form. And it is largely male violence. Werewolf films were almost always traditionally just that; although there are a few early exceptions such as Cry of the Werewolf (1944) or She-Wolf of London (1946). This trend continued until the seventies when the potential to re-write folklore and fairy tales became startlingly apparent to feminist commentators. Amongst them was Angela Carter, who re-wrote Charles Perrault’s fairy tales for her groundbreaking book The Bloody Chamber in 1979; just a few years later her work would become the basis of a feminist reinterpretation of Little Red Riding Hood, The Company of Wolves (1984) — a project which didn’t just adapt a number of Carter’s fictional works into one coherent story, but one on which she had a lot of creative input, co-writing the script with director Neil Jordan.
Even beyond her work on The Bloody Chamber, Carter’s short stories are littered with themes of women surrendering themselves to their inner beast. This frequently works in tandem with sexual awakening, with female characters descending into a frenzy of wild carnality as libidinal energy bonds with pure violence, and through opening up to their bestial nature, they find eventual liberation. It’s a fairly subversive subject, even now. People are uncomfortable with the potency of female sexuality; just as they are uncomfortable with the notion that women can enjoy violence just as much as men. Even within the horror film this aspect is carefully managed and contained, although there are those who have deliberately transgressed the code; for example Jean Rollin’s Fascination (1979) — cannibal women use power and influence to set up a death cult — the aforementioned The Company of Wolves; or Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) — where Dr. Jekyll’s fiance also consumes his infamous liquid, becoming a relative Miss Hyde, who proves herself to be far more sexually potent, cruel, and violent than her male alter-ego could ever hope to be. Even though Amaral strips away the usual supernatural devices for her own story, Sara is of the same stock as the bestial women of Angela Carter et al.
In many ways, Sara can be considered the film’s final girl. It’s a trope closely associated with the slasher film, coined by feminist writer Carol Clover, whereby just one girl — usually the chaste sensible one — is left standing at the end of the film, after battling it out with the narrative’s central killer. Transcendence to the final girl typically comes at the cost of abandoning sexuality, and by disregarding aspects of femininity, instead of becoming unisex or more masculine through battle. Amaral again uses subversion to draw the true power from Sara’s burgeoning sexual liberation, which could be considered an act that stands in direct opposition to the context of the final girl. And yet, there is still a connection to the trope, given that Sara has the last word, and is allowed to literally consume the body of the film’s central killer. The meaning of life for Friendly Beast is tied to a dog eat dog, the survival of the fittest mentality. It is Sara who ends up the ultimate predator at the end.
When we first meet Sara she is weak and filled with self-loathing. She is disrespected by customers in the restaurant, generally downtrodden, her obvious affection for her boss is all but ignored. When matters hit crisis point Sara is quick to affiliate herself with what she sees as the winning side, cleverly exploiting her feminine nature to hide the fact that she is just as power-hungry as Inácio. In the early stages of her transformation, we come to understand her actions; her obvious jealousy manifests as anger toward Veronica — even the robbers do not see Sara fit to sexually abuse; unlike the other woman. It is Sara who eggs Inácio on to shoot Veronica at point-blank range, basking in glee in the aftermath. It is Sara who initiates sexual contact with Inácio — in a scene that subverts all the usual titillation, it is raw, primal, dangerous, perversely absurd, as the woman is seen grunting above Inácio like a pig. With the mask of civility truly withdrawn, broken up, tossed aside, Sara can finally give in to her true nature; as a result, she takes on an animal like persona — such as eating like a dog — something Inácio doesn’t appear to mirror in his animal form. And it is natural when linked to a sexual context, that threatens Inácio — demonstrated by the way he covers Sara’s naked body, which she flaunts in the post-coital glow — because he senses its power, perhaps. Sara might not be a typical final girl, but she defeats the beast all the same. And she does so very much on her own terms, by becoming her own beast, and consuming the carcass of her former master, in a model that closely follows some of the conclusions Angela Carter found in her own work. Amaral shows us while unleashing the beast can be seen as a destructive act for man; it can be a liberating and empowering one for women.
This essay was originally printed in a German translation for a booklet essay for the Blu-ray release of the film for Bildstörung.