It’s not difficult to guess which beast is being referred to in the title of Katharina Mückstein’s coming-of-age drama L’Animale. In rural Austria, Mati (Sophie Stockinger) is only a few weeks away from passing her final exams. But matters of the heart soon take precedence over a graduation diploma in this charming, precise lesson about knowing yourself and letting love in.
Is it more important to follow desire or fear? Why is to die and to become a paradox? In the classroom, questions like this – of grave magnitude when you’re 17 – punctuate the gently on-the-nose point of the film. It’s in this in-between period, from your teenage years to the cusp of adulthood, that defining decisions start to shape who you are.
Most of the time, these thoughts don’t sway Mati. She seems to have most things figured out – she’s training as a vet alongside her mother and hangs out with her best friends (“sons of bitches” to everyone else) at the motocross park by day, the synth-heavy nightclub by night. But when an unexpected confession throws her most comfortable friendship off-kilter, everything is up for grabs and Mati’s balance is suddenly thrown.
The film follows a well-trodden path of stories exploring self-discovery and teenage desire. It’s easy to draw comparisons with old and new depictions of desire and gender experimentation, from the unspoken and quotidian longing in Call Me By Your Name, to the focus on a young girl’s gender experimentation in Tomboy. But there’s much more to appreciate than borrowed tropes in L’Animale. Mückstein’s direction is ambitious and sharp, with an electrifying aesthetic from the moment the bright yellow title credits flash into focus. A great attention to detail gives the film weight through its evocative imagery – the dusty vastness of the motocross park cuts into a strobe-soaked nightclub. A sea of bodies runs across a gymnasium with geometric precision, never losing sight of Mati.
This precision is also felt in Mückstein’s writing, showing great care for her characters. The story cleverly develops, shifting from Mati’s isolated experimentation to a wider questioning on loneliness and desire in everyone around her. By giving time to the marriage between Mati’s parents, the story widens its reach and offers a tasteful questioning of loyalty and happiness, which doesn’t get any easier as you grow older.
In a film that asks questions about growing up that have been answered many times already, it’s refreshing to see them still being treated with respect. The tone never dips into melodrama, never sensationalising the bubbling emotions of Mati, her friends or her family. Particularly, in the loneliness of Mati’s father (played tenderly by Dominik Warta), there isn’t any pity or contempt – he’s just trying to get by like everyone else.
The questioning of animalistic desires and gender identity could be enough to make a convincing case for L’Animale’s integrity, but the film reaches a cathartic climax with a touch of surreal creativity. In music, the characters form a constellation of emotional poster figures as they sing Italian singer-songwriter Franco Battiato’s lyrics to the 1980s pop ballad. It’s an artistic and powerful moment, not dissimilar to the striking group rendition of Aimee Mann’s Wise Up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.
Using a wide range of bold influences while carving its own way, Mückstein’s latest film is invigorating and admirable. As Mati confidently hands over her completed exam paper in the final shot of the film, you can’t help but feel hopeful for everything she, and this film, will undoubtedly go on to achieve next.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 15-25 February. Follow our coverage here.