Sixteen-year-old Marie lives on a small island with her seriously ill mother and her father, who takes care of the family. But suddenly mysterious deaths happen and Marie can feel something strange happening to her body.
Remember in 2008 when Tomas Alfredson snuck up on the world with his sly contribution to the vampire movie, Let the Right One In? Scandinavian subtlety and the supernatural blended to make a film that got under people’s skin and suckered in an art house crowd who normally wouldn't have been caught dead at a vampire movie. Now director Jonas Alexander Arnby has made another excellent contribution to Denmark’s soft parade of horror. Providing details of the specific sub-genre When Animals Dream belongs to would undermine the film, but the important thing is the compelling manner in which this story peels back its secrets.
In an island fishing town, 16-year-old Marie (Sonia Suhl) is a young, dutiful woman who lives with her father (Lars Mikkelson) and her invalid mother (Sonja Richter, currently visible in The Keeper of Lost Causes). Washed-out cinematography combines with a windswept landscape to impress that theirs is a stark existence. Both father and daughter rotate their caring duties, taking mum for a “walk” in her wheelchair, feeding her etc. and the bond between parent and child seems a loving one.
The mother’s illness is unexplained, but a medical examination Marie undergoes in the film’s opening sequence is there to suggest that the teenager may be developing trouble of her own. In an effort to prevent his daughter from becoming too entwined in her mother’s mostly comatose life, Dad arranges for Marie to take a job at the local fish-processing plant. Starting at the bottom, Marie helps load trucks, and is required to dispose of the (ugh) unwanted fish guts in a giant refuse tank. As the new girl on site, Marie quickly catches the eye of a several young men at the workplace. Naïve and flattered by the attention, Marie is unaware that her open responses will have some unintended effects. At the end of her first day, one young co-worker (played by Gustav Dyekjaer Giese of Northwest) is given the key role of plunging Marie into a workplace initiation ceremony. While the hazing incident is clearly not personal, Marie is – unsurprisingly – unable to trust that young man again.
For a while, When Animals Dream feels like a Scandinavian coming of age film and a contemplative exploration of how pranks can escalate into full-scale bullying, particularly if the dynamics are tainted with unrequited desire. Writer Rasmus Birch laces his script with the horror element, but it’s quite some time before the film tips its hand outright. Once the secret is fully revealed, a series of twists save the film from accusations of predictability.
Each cast member provides an authentic performance resembling documentary realism and ensures each intense moment is riveting. The crowning glory is Sonia Suhl’s creation of the emotionally wounded Marie. With a sense of adolescent betrayal inflamed by her hazing workmates, Marie gradually unravels the connection between what is happening to her body and the behaviour of everyone around her. Suhl’s drawn, sharply boned features are often harshly lit, making her appear cold, but at the same time the actress perfectly communicates the vulnerability and blooming sexuality that would make her attractive to her male co-workers.
Given that Harvey Weinstein has secured American distribution rights for this film, an English language remake of When Animals Dream seems inevitable. At the risk of sounding heretical, a remake might even be good. But why wait? The quality stuff is right here and ready to watch.