Jonas Alexander Arnby’s first feature, When Animals Dream (2014), is a self-proclaimed fable about a young woman discovering both her burgeoning sexuality and the inconvenient fact that she’s a werewolf. Having debuted in Critic’s Week at Cannes, it’s one of the small crop of art-house genre films that get anointed each year with mainstream, high-culture legitimacy (see: It Follows ). While it’s capably constructed and beautiful to look at, Dream unfortunately doesn’t tread any truly new or revelatory ground.
The film follows Marie, an ethereal 19-year-old (newcomer Sonia Suhl), who lives with her father and disabled mother in a remote village in Northern Denmark. What ails Marie’s mother isn’t clear at first; she’s mostly catatonic, but there’s clearly an emotional bond still thriving between her and her daughter, however subtly. Marie is devoted to her, and while the family unit is restrained and ascetic, it seems to be loving as well.Things change when Marie gets a job at a local fish factory, where the other workers eye her strangely from day one. It’s not just that she stands out for her model-like appearance in this small, isolated town. We soon learn that her mother was accused of murder long ago and—as improbable as it seems—this accusation is now a black mark on her entire family. Marie’s coworkers taunt and abuse her, with only one (Jakob Oftebro) taking her side. They soon become an item, and Marie finds herself with a raging libido that she can’t quite control. At the same time, bodies begin turning up around town and she starts sprouting thick hair along her spine… Perhaps you can see where this is going. Here’s the interesting thing about Dream, and it’s not the plot: the film takes a horror trope—lycanthropy—normally portrayed through a male protagonist and turns it on its head by making it about a young woman and her mother. In doing so, the film introduces not only female sexuality but also a matriarchal aspect to the topic. This changes the meaning of Marie’s affliction inescapably. Her transformation into a bloodthirsty monster could be read as a radical response to patriarchal power structures exacting their will on her body: her father physically restraining her, her doctor injecting her over her protestations (to sedate her like her mother), her coworkers sexually assaulting her because she scares and excites them. There’s a glimmer of Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) in here: the affliction—passed down mother to daughter—of being violently unable to assimilate to society’s expectations. Unfortunately, the film makes gestures in this direction but doesn’t follow through, reverting instead to a scorched-earth massacre to tie up loose ends rather than sustained, ideologically coherent character development. Tonally, the narrative is too inconsistent for any idea to come through clearly, other than the fact that this is a pretty, restrained film (at first, anyway) toeing the line between art house and real horror. Marie may be a female werewolf but she’s far from a feminist heroine, or even a particularly compelling character. She’s not fully realized enough for that.
You can see When Animals Dream in theaters & On Demand on August 28th.