This unconventional coming of age story from Austria resists falling into familiar narrative patterns on every turn. A cursory glance at the synopsis of L’Animale, part of the lineup at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival after premiering at the 2018 Berlinale, suggests an LGBT narrative that we’re all too familiar with – a tomboy in a small town beginning to develop an awareness of a sexual identity she’s been ignoring for too long. But director Katharina Mückstein understands that an authentic coming of age story doesn’t neatly resemble a cinematic narrative.
Her film is merely a snapshot of one short period in her protagonists’ life, ending at an unassuming moment that a more conventional film would frame as a crucial moment in the drama. It’s a refreshingly off kilter take on a story that you’d imagine most directors would capture in the most obvious, not to mention formulaic, manner.
Mati (played by Sophie Stockinger, who starred in the director’s previous film) is a tomboy nearing her final high school exams, who devotes most of her free team on her motorbike, hanging with an irritating group of boys. When they’re not biking together, they’re at the local club, with Mati always a passive bystander when she sees them harassing various women on the dance floor – even helping them by fighting back in their favour once they’ve been put in their place. One day, when helping out her mum at the vets, she meets Carla (Julia Franz Richter), a local shop assistant who she is instantly attracted to. As her attraction to Carla grows, the rifts within her friendship group become more palpable, especially between her and Sebi (Jack Hofer) the son of a local farmer who clearly has feelings for Mati.
Meanwhile, Mati’s father (Dominik Warta) is simultaneously having his own problems that is gnawing away at his family life. He’s coming to terms with a repressed homosexuality, and trying to reconcile it with the stable domesticity he provides – little does he know that his wife is already aware of this, and it’s already tearing them apart before he even publicly admits his true identity.
Coming of age movies that contrast the struggle of a child with that of a parent aren’t particularly unique, but this decision works in Mückstein’s favour. After all, for a film that chooses to roll credits as soon as one of the most dramatic moments of Mati’s life takes place, showing a grown man still struggling to find his identity proves that the director is right to frame the story like this. Coming of age stories don’t exist in real life like they do in the movies, and the lack of conventional conclusion suggests that Mati could equally continue down a path with no resolution in sight, much like her father.
Her other great decision is refraining from making her central protagonist easily empathetic. She doesn’t show particular remorse when helping the guys gang up on girls who have rejected their advances, only showing signs of breaking down when asked to vandalise the supermarket where her crush works. This contrasts with the many relatable moments of suburban boredom, suggesting that her feelings of teenage alienation in a stiflingly dull environment are just being brought to their natural conclusion – and yet even her father is portrayed on the outside looking in, in one moment, quite literally left stranded and unable to get to a gathering of gay men. For all the overt visual metaphors regarding their alienation the director includes, the characters remain complicated, with problems unable to be resolved within a 95 minute runtime.
Mückstein also flirts with sequences that are borderline magical realism, such as a Magnolia-inspired moment when the characters break out into singing the 80’s Italian ballad that gives the film its title. It’s a decidedly “mileage may vary” moment depending on each viewer’s tastes, but for me, having such an operatic moment contrast with the boredom of the everyday didn’t feel particularly awkward. If anything, it merely underlines how escapism proves to be far out of reach for all the characters in the story, struggling to grasp the one thing that would give them true happiness.
L’Animale looks like a familiar coming of age story from the outside, but is something far more refreshing. It’s not perfect (and deliberately so), but is definitely worth seeking out.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Katharina Mückstein