Ginger Nuts of Horror
This movie is an exquisite gem; full of dark, mystifying patterns pulling us into its bewitching depths. Some films grab you by the throat and won’t let go, while others firmly grip your hand and lead you gently into the wild fairy forest, but the result is the same: you cannot turn back and indeed you do not want to.
When Animals Dream has many nuances to its storyline but at heart it is a coming of age tale that is both tragic and comic. There is much suffering and numerous trials for our main character Marie, played exceptionally well by Sonia Suhl. Marie’s father and partner in suffering is Thor, actor Lars Mikkelson, a phenomenal performer with much experience, including playing an outstandingly despicable villain on an episode of the Sherlock Holmes TV series. Marie’s mother, Mor, we learn right away has some malady that requires routine injections and keeps her bound to a wheel chair, unable to do anything for herself. Together, Marie and her father must do everything for Mor; feed her, bathe her, and dress her.
In the opening scene Marie has a rash above her left breast that the doctor is inspecting and he inquires as to what other symptoms she may be experiencing and assesses Marie for any indication that her mother’s disease is blossoming in her as well. The story takes place in a small coastal town in Denmark where fishing is the economy. Marie has her first day with a new job at the local fishery, cleaning and filleting fish that are brought in. She is quickly friended by her coworkers Felix and Daniel, but another coworker, Esben, upset that Marie is not showing a liking for him, decides to become her tormentor. (One scene in particular will leave you wanting to stab Esben and another coworker repeatedly, or shoot them, or castrate them or something equally horrific.) Felix, who trains her in, shows Marie kindness and helps her out on the job but it is Daniel that immediately catches her fancy and he, in turn, is smitten by her beauty.
By the end of her first day of work the rash has gotten quite worse and before bed she spies something peculiar about her mother that she had not seen before. Suspicions are birthed concerning just what is wrong with her mother and, as more symptoms materialize in her own body, she wonders more often what is going to be wrong with her. She steals a file from the doctor’s bag concerning her mother while he is making a house call. It contains autopsy and crime scene pictures of a violent attack on some Russian sailors and drawings of various symptoms that concern her mother and appear to be monstrous.
Marie eventually shows her father where the rash over her left breast has developed into a thick lock of long hair. He and the doctor warn her that, based on her mother’s condition, she will grow hair all over her body and experience emotional changes – a short temper and aggressiveness. Thor demands that she take the same medicine as her mother but Marie adamantly refuses and leaves the house. She visits the ship where the attack took place, abandoned now in dry dock. There she finds evidence of deep claw marks covering the underside of a wooden access hatch to an area below deck.
Seeking answers, she goes to see Felix and asks him about the boat and the men and whether her mother was on the boat. Felix won’t explain all but he does tell her that her mother was beautiful once but the town’s people feared her….just as they do Marie, now. He invites her to forget about it for the evening and go to the local club. There she loses herself in dancing, emerging from her innocent and self-controlled shell. She sees Daniel and approaches him, casting off her virginal restraints. “I’m transforming into a monster,” she says, “and I really need to get laid before.” They leave and go to a hiding place along the beach to make love. Here we see that Daniel is not put off by her condition. Though Marie is self-conscious of her changing body and possesses doubts concerning her loveliness, Daniel professes “you are beautiful” and loves her, freeing her body to press forward with more rapid changes as her sexuality and appearance are embraced. It is a forbidden love, though, by their little society. Marie is an aberration like her mother, to be feared and controlled, not embraced as is nor to be admired and loved as Daniel does.
When Marie returns home her known world begins its progressive collapse. Her father and the doctor try to hold her down and force the medicine on her. Choices are made and actions taken that cannot be undone. Actions that will draw the attention of the town’s people to Marie. Within a couple of days, tragedy strikes and Marie’s world dissolves further. She does not shrink away though from the malignant stares and threatening actions from her coworkers and other people. She embraces her condition and throws it in their faces daring them to take some action against her. And take action they do. The witch hunt goes forth but who will truly become the hunter and who will be the prey is yet to be assured. Daniel refuses to let Marie face the band of persecutors alone and stands with her, his love for her unflinching no matter what, even to the very end.
In considering the themes and message of this movie, I believe it speaks to us on multiple fronts. It is indeed a coming of age story, but it is more than just embracing sexuality or rebelling against the status quo. It speaks to becoming comfortable within one’s on skin, of finding out who we are and embracing it regardless of what society may think. On one front, Marie’s mother’s condition clearly shows us that to bow to society’s standards is not simply to be controlled, it is loss of one’s identity, one’s ability to live on our own terms, to be free at all. It is a sacrifice of ourselves on the altar of conformity so that we may live among the masses without fear of reprisal. Mor does this, it seems, for the sake of her husband and Marie but she proves along the way she does not want such an existence for her daughter but instead desires that Marie be truly liberated. Another angle I believe the movie speaks to us from is to challenge the notion that society alone can decree what is beautiful. As Marie’s symptoms increase and her body and actions resemble something monstrous, Daniel continually affirms her beauty. And, I must say, they did such an exquisite job on the FX and her appearance, and Sonia Suhl’s acting is so compellingly authentic, that despite her image being an obvious deviation from the acceptable standards of beauty, you cannot help but admire her symmetry as comely and enchanting and her inner beast as noble and unyielding before society’s attempts to extinguish the flame of her rebel existence. And in so doing, we confess, along with Daniel, that she is indeed, beautiful, and stunningly so.
To me this movie is quite magical, blazing an entirely unexpected path away from the standard werewolf movie plotlines to deliver us some long hidden and unknown beast of the deepest, densest forests that we never knew existed, and the discovery is nothing short of breathtaking and brilliant. By the end I found myself, like Daniel, smitten by the beauty her final form possessed, in love with her primal purity and unable to look at her as anything other than a brave and truly guileless human soul despite what means she employs to fight for her freedom and her life.
Does she somehow strike down the grinding machine of social conformity and emerge victorious, you must wonder? Well, I can’t tell you that. You’ll have to watch it for yourself.
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