The Animal Review - The Metaphysical Terror of Nature

We begin Walter Ungerer’s The Animal (1976) with a long shot of a railroad station. At first we can’t see the figure in the distance. But the camera moves closer, then closer. Soon we’re looking at a woman dressed in black. Her expression is one of fear, trepidation, and anticipation. She’s waiting for something or someone. Already we’re ill at ease. Why is she waiting? Why does she look so nervous?

We find out that she’s in some sort of undefined relationship with the man whose car she enters a short while later. The woman is Jo (Jo Moore) and the man is Paul (Paul Ickovic). They’re renting a house somewhere in rural Vermont. Ostensibly, they’re there to relax and do some cross-country skiing, but it’s clear early on that this trip is some sort of last-ditch attempt at reconciliation. They’ve long since grown weary of each other, or at least Jo has grown weary of Paul, who is a self-absorbed bore.

Besides Paul and Jo, nature itself is the third main character, and its presence dwarfs everything else. The snow, the mountains, the woods are not just backdrops, but the film’s narrative driving force. Here, nature is beautiful, expansive, and terrifying. It’s far larger than the lives of the human characters, who are so small against its backdrop. This tinyness is amplified by Ungerer’s frequent long and extreme long shots, in which the characters are so far away that they feel almost completely insignificant. The dispassionate observation of a mostly static camera gives the thing a sense of neutrality that amplifies the eeriness. The camera often seems completely disinterested in the human drama playing out in front of it. We’re used to the camera manipulating our thoughts and emotions through movement and editing, so a camera that observes in an almost clinical manner can get quite disconcerting.

So even though there is a narrative to the film that could be explained as a series of events moving from point A to B, the concentration on the natural surroundings, the dispassionate camera, and the slow pacing make The Animal seem almost plotless. Such is life, of course. We live in a series of small moments, not the frenetic drama of a Hollywood narrative film. These small moments build up, and when a crisis occurs, it seems to have happened suddenly because we didn’t take notice of the seemingly more mundane moments that led to it.

And so Jo disappears into the woods and the only clue is a mysterious set of animal prints. But, besides that clue, she might as well have vaporized or disappeared into the ether. It’s a mystery left unsolved, unresolved. And why do two mute children appear at various points in the film only to stare at the couple? They are in many ways as ominous as the animal tracks. Maybe moreso. And why not? Children are kind of naturally creepy to an adult (a state of being defined as a former child that has shed its magic).

Oddly enough, though, Paul becomes almost human in Jo’s absence. Screaming, crying, calling out and only hearing his echo in return. Ironically, this is the humanity that Jo had wanted from him. But again, nature has the last laugh, as the neutral camera peers out of a window while Paul freaks out in the snow, growing smaller in our view with every passing second. Nature wins again.

Without any definitive resolution, Jo will remain in a state neither living nor dead. All that’s left of her are possibilities. This isn’t a very good thing for Paul, who will never have resolution on a personal or a metaphysical level.

The Animal is a fascinating film. It has a timelessness about it. There are mysteries that will never be solved. Nature will outlast all of us.


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