Film critics have an unfortunate habit of identifying this rural drama, that urban thriller or the other folk romance as really a “western in disguise”. I trust Rodrigo Sorogoyen will forgive me if I use up my yearly allowance by placing his terrific new film in that category. A family moves to an isolated part of the wilderness. They alone resist the advances of incoming investors seeking to buy up land. The dispute ultimately leads to violence. There are big chunks of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West right there. Wind farms here take the place of the railroad.
None of which is to diminish Sorogoyen’s achievement. Winner of best film at the recent Dublin International Film Festival, and best foreign-language film at the César Awards (yes, the French Oscars), The Beasts casts the hulking, sensitive Denis Ménochet as Antoine, a Frenchman who, with his wife, Olga (Marina Foïs), moves to Galicia and sets to growing eco-friendly crops. Some of the locals are friendly. But his visits to the nearby bar generate icy hostility. He doesn’t yet speak Spanish. He refuses to help his neighbours escape their muddy poverty. His approach to farming is seen as bizarre and effete. One might reasonably think of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (which, come to think of it, many critics felt was a western in disguise).
Sorogoyen has worked hard at conveying the unforgiving rigour of the rural lifestyle. It adds to the film’s enigmatic appeal that, though the meaner neighbours are violent bullies, it is hard not to sympathise with their core argument. Alex de Pablo’s camera – playing off a sometime abrasive score – finds real beauty here, but few among us would enjoy carving a living from the rocky soil. Particularly antagonistic to the blow-ins are cackling Xan (Luis Zahera) and his unsophisticated brother, Lorenzo (Diego Anido). Any opportunity to sneer at “Frenchie” is gobbled up greedily. “Did you know the French came here to conquer us in the past?” Xan says. “They came for us because they thought we were morons.” Nobody in Ireland could reasonably argue with a nation that traces its animosity back to the era of Napoleon. Only so far?
Initially somewhat overshadowed by her husband, Olga gradually emerges as the more resilient and strategic of the two
As the film progresses, the dynamic between the couple goes through a transformation. Ménochet is brilliantly cast as a man who, though heavy, strong and dedicated, doesn’t have the right sort of cunning to counteract the hostility around him. The tension heightens as his well is poisoned and he takes to recording any interactions with neighbours on a camera that he fails to adequately conceal. Violent conflict becomes increasingly unavoidable. Initially somewhat overshadowed by her husband, Olga gradually emerges as the more resilient and strategic of the two. When, at the local market, someone tries to swindle her out of a sheep purchase, she digs in with a dogged determination that Antoine can’t quite manage. These sorts of stories rarely celebrate the virtues of keeping one’s hand firmly on the plough handle.
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Beginning with a stunning sequence in which a wild horse is grappled into submission, The Beasts does invite some patience from the viewer. Long takes allow conversations to play out to the slower beats of real life. The film slackens in the middle before taking a screeching bend into a surprising last act. Those later scenes manage a shift in focus that screenwriters rarely risk. The punt pays off with a hugely satisfying closing kick in the solar plexus.
A terrific, gripping drama that will cross cultural borders with ease. Every nation has such stories.
The Beasts is released on Friday, March 24th