Animal Oozes with Summertime Sadness


They are called the animateurs. Their role is to provide amusement to lazy tourists — from Russia, Austria, Britain — who wouldn’t think for a second to actually venture out of the hotel and experience the real Greece. They sing, they dance, they play make-believe. They’re unbearably kitsch, moderately talented and incredibly committed. But they’re only here for the summer. After a while, most of them will move on to different things. 

But not everyone. Some people seem committed to doing the same thing, over and over again, for the rest of their lives. Some don’t seem to fit anywhere else. Some people just can’t change who they are. Perhaps they’re just like an Animal (Sofia Exarchou, 2023). 

This excellent competition entry film brims with sociological detail, touristic critique and intense character study, truly counting the cost of the holiday entertainment complex on the all-smiling, all-singing, all-laughing crew. Anchored by a gripping, fully-alive, three-dimensional performance by Dimitra Vlagopoulou as head animateur Kalia — the type of work that seems to dictate the tone of the film as opposed to the other way around —  Exarchou’s sophomore feature is a standout work that cuts straight for the heart, one insanely cheesy song at a time.  

An early scene conveys the emotional conflict at the heart of the film. Kalia sings Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” to a group of pensioners. One man gets up, dances with her and visibly gropes her backside and breasts. It seems like an everyday occurrence. And her eyes tell one story — visible disgust — while her smile tells another; moving swiftly onto the next part of the show. To do this over and over again, to keep putting on a smile, to keep pretending to care, to keep politely fending off pervy men, must drain the soul. But for some people, there might not be anything else they can — or want — to do. 

Exarchou, who also wrote the film, smartly limits the focus. The dancers do not interact with the cleaners, for example, and Kalia never has a conversation with hotel management. This isn’t so much class critique as character study — what it means to put on a happy-go-lucky show for everyone else while lacking direction in your own life. Her spiral is cleverly matched with the seventeen-year-old Eva (Flomaria Papadaki) from Poland; running away from her boring border town with the Czech Republic to find herself on the far edge of the Mediterranean. 

Kalia, sensing a younger self, takes Eva under her wing, inviting her into a world of heavy drinking, casual sex, and endless partying, where every night seems to end with the sunrise — and an almighty hangover. Allowing scenes to take their time, but also knowing when to cut to allow for maximum impact, their interplay might follow a classic design — veerrrryyyy loosely resembling All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) but without the witchy rivalry — but the smaller elements make it a masterful, emotionally resonant work.

Without pandering to our emotions, mixing music with sound design (hate), any musical score or intense, showy close-ups, this is confident, simple and highly effective filmmaking, all the while building up to a truly heartfelt conclusion. It simply allows Vlagopoulou to fully inhabit her character, to make mistakes, to be fucked up and confused and human, unable to find a way out of the murk of her everyday life. To hope for a different life entirely, if only for a little while. 

And the singing and dancing don’t just illuminate the themes of the film. They are the film; its emotional core and immense well-spring of feeling. Choice cuts include Alla Pugacheva’s Soviet classic “Million Roses” — a tune that became popular despite the singer’s own disgust — to some of the saddest renditions of “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie” you will ever hear in your entire life. The combination of music and dance with faces and bodies reflects so many fascinating, conflicting emotions here, Exarchou confident in letting the audience fill in or guess the rest. 

I was surprised by the finale. I thought that musical sequences ending in European films were a bit played out, especially after the atrocious ending to Disco Boy (Giacomo Abbruzzese, 2023). A film like Animal shows there’s life in the conceit yet. Good job. 

Read an exclusive interview between Sofia Exarchou and our contributor Jared Abbott here!

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Redmond is the editor-in-chief of Journey Into Cinema.