Saturday, February 13, 2016

Women in Horror: When Animals Dream

* spoilers *

Marie is 16 years old and lives on an island with her father and invalid mother. She gets a new job at a fishery where they good-naturedly haze her and she feels she belongs. Then she starts to get some weird symptoms: a strange rash and patches of thick hair. Then, when the changes become noticeable, people start to treat her differently, losing their playful behavior and becoming more threatening. It becomes clear that her father kept things from her since her condition is similar to that of her mother. Marie now has two choices: does she submit to becoming a comatose invalid like her mother or just live her own life, but be hunted by the society she grew up in.

When Animals Dream is a Danish werewolf film with feminist themes in the same vein as Ginger Snaps. While Ginger Snaps is fraught with teen angst, this film is more quiet and subdued. The film opens with Marie, pale, thin, and seemingly frail getting a weird rash checked out. The doctor asks her the same questions over and over during his examination as if he doesn't trust her answers.  experienced the same treatment at the vet when trying to get treatment for my sick cat. These male professionals act like women either aren't sure, are lying to them, or have simply untrustworthy judgment. In Marie's case, she isn't being trusted about her own body, which she obviously knows better than anyone else. Things seem normal, so she's dismissed. She starts working at a fish mongers and is good-naturedly hazed by being shoved into a vat of fish detritus. The staff becomes more friendly and she feels like she belongs. At home, most of her time is spent caring for her mother who seems aware, but can't speak or move due to a mysterious illness. Marie is endlessly patient, quiet, and happy to do what she's asked without question.

Marie knows something is being kept from her, so she tries to get information in any way she can: spying on her parents and stealing evidence about attacks from the doctor. She dreams of being bloody and wild, the exact opposite of her fairly colorless, dull life. Then Marie starts a flirtation with Daniel at work (witnessed by Bjarne) and throws a glass at Esben, a jerk who tried to joke with her then insulted her mother when she didn't deign to respond. Both of these men catch up with her at her locker, proceed to force her to her knees while she's in her undershirt, and then slap her in the face with a fish from under his apron (where he isn't wearing pants) as if it's a penis. Throughout, they tell her to look at them and kiss the fish. When Marie doesn't conform to what they think women should be (quiet, apparently asexual, and subservient), Bjarne and Esben sexually attack her. It's quite a disturbing scene and they could have raped her there if they had wanted to. I felt for her in this helpless and traumatic situation where these men typically retaliated against a woman acting like a person instead of an automaton.

Then Marie finds thick hair growing on the rash on her chest. This is a super obvious, not very subtle image for puberty. Women growing out body hair is now quite taboo. The media has shown women plucked and shaved within an inch of their lives for so long that anything else is alien. The amount of disgust I've seen over a woman's armpit, leg, or belly hair is ridiculous because men showcase the same hair but usually more plentiful and it's just a natural part of our bodies. Daniel feels the hair on Marie's back when they start to get intimate and he reacts with curiosity and a little bit of confusion. Marie takes it as rejection and tells him to leave, but he tells her she's beautiful and accepts her for how she is. Throughout the film, Daniel is the only person to truly accept all of her, flaws and differences and all. He is also the only one to treat her mother as a person instead of a piece of furniture or someone to ridicule. Their romance is sweet and the most comfortable part of the film.

When Marie returns home after seeing Daniel, her father and her doctor try to force the treatment for the illness on her when she already refused. Marie's mother, in her only physical act of the film, leaps upon the doctor and kills him. The disease is just the state of being a woman. Accepting the treatment means becoming a shade of oneself to appease the society. Women are expected to be silent and compliant with no will of their own. Marie's mother accepted that fate, allowing everyone else to dictate what she did, and kept all of her thoughts and feelings on the inside. She showed in that one act of defiance that she wants different for her child. Afterwards, the awful townspeople demand that she be stripped to check for signs of transformation and violence. They don't see her as a person, but a potentially dangerous object with no right to privacy, personhood, feelings, opinions, or even life as she is murdered later on in the film.

Marie accepts that she will be rejected and becomes the woman she wants to be with thoughts, opinions, and the right to disagree and be unpleasant. I appreciate that there are men and women on both sides of this issue. It shows that both men and women can either work for or against women. Internalized misogyny can be ingrained by being raised with these ideas, so seeing a woman working so hard against Marie is both accurate and kind of depressing. She decides to shove her state in everyone's faces at the funeral, the wake, and then the next day at work in rebellion. Her coworkers react again, more violently than ever before, chasing her down on motorcycles. They eventually capture and imprison her. This shows how both sides do more extreme things to counter each other, but Marie is still just living her normal life (just not in the way the others want) while the other side is endangering her life. Everyone has turned against her except for her father and Daniel. Her transformation progresses quickly, allowing her to dispatch her enemies easily. It only gets to this point because her life is literally in danger. Beyond defending herself, she has never been aggressive or violent before. The final scene features Daniel hugging her and holding her hand, reassuring her that he is there. It's beautiful and shows that he sees the person beneath what everyone else deemed monstrous.

When Animals Dream is an absolutely beautiful Danish film. Much of the film is very quiet, much like Marie, but meaningful. There's not a lot of unnecessary chatter or filler scenes. Sonia Suhl acts amazingly as Marie. Her transformation both emotionally and physically throughout the film is well done and nuanced. Marie was always quiet, but quiet doesn't mean subservient or weak. Her messages were relayed loud and clear even if her actions were subtle. Sonja Richter does an excellent job as Marie's mother (who doesn't even have a name). Most of the film has her not moving or speaking, but her gazes speak volumes. It's clear that she knows what's going on, but can't communicate with her daughter. I highly recommend this meaningful and gorgeous film.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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