‘Animal’ Review: A Darkly Intriguing Look at the Underbelly of Holiday Resorts

‘Animal’ Review: A Darkly Intriguing Look at the Underbelly of Holiday Resorts

For those fortunate enough to grab their own little piece of paradise during summer vacation, the memories can seem unforgettable. But there’s another side to those sunny holidays that are rarely posted on Instagram, involving the many hotel workers who labor in the background to make everything appear perfect, at least on the surface.

Greek writer-director Sofia Exarchou’s intriguing second feature, Animal, focuses on a specific group of such workers: the animateurs whose job is to entertain guests both day and night, leading seniors in a game of bingo or a group singalong, or performing Showgirls-style dance numbers marked by an excessive level of kitsch.

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Animal

The Bottom Line

Permanent vacation.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Dimitra Vlagopoulou, Flomaria Papadaki, Ahilleas Hariskos, Voodoo Jürgens, Chronis Barbarian, Kristof Lamp
Director, screenwriter: Sofia Exarchou

1 hour 56 minutes

Paul Verhoeven’s glitter-and-guts depiction of Las Vegas definitely comes to mind in this story of a dancer, Kalia (the excellent Dimitra Vlagopoulou), who choreographs numbers and trains new recruits at a Greek resort filled with foreign tourists. She constantly reminds her team to smile at the guests, and yet when she’s off the clock, Kalia’s growing existential crisis takes center stage.

At first, she and her fellow animateurs — including Simos (Ahilleas Hariskos), an exuberant master of ceremonies and Kalia’s occasional lover — seem to have carved out a little piece of paradise for themselves as well. By day, they toil away at the hotel, where they don’t seem to hate their jobs. By night, they moonlight as dancers at a seedy local nightclub or hang around a dilapidated beachfront residence, where they idle away their free time swimming in the sea.

We glimpse their lives through the eyes of Eva (Flomaria Papadaki), a young newcomer who’s joined the dance troupe after fleeing small-town life in Poland. (“Vodka, vodka, vodka,” is how she describes it.) Eva is more inhibited than the others, and Kalia manages to slowly coax her out of her shell, showing her the ropes of a profession offering escape for both the dancers and their drunken spectators.

But that escape comes at a cost, especially for Kalia, who admits to Eva that she’s been stuck on the island for nine years. As the film progresses, her couplings with random tourists that she meets in bars or clubs grow increasingly desperate — as do her live acts, including two Karaoke renditions of the Spanish disco hit, “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie,” that are tinged with sadness.

“I don’t even dream. Nothing. Blank,” Kalia says, even if she keeps on selling dreams to her happy customers. The essential conflict of Animal lies there, and it’s one that Exarchou often observes more than she ignites, in a film that’s low on drama but high on character detail and verisimilitude.

She used the same approach for her first feature, Park (2016), mixing fiction and documentary techniques to explore characters around the Athens Olympic Complex. Here, the director and cinematographer Monica Lenczewska (City of Lies) capture every nook and cranny of the resort, from the filthy locker rooms where the troupe suits up to the swimming pools and dining areas where they perform to clients hailing around the world, using approximative English as a universal langauge.

Similar to the recent indie hit Aftersun, the film underlines how such all-inclusive vacations often come at a cost. In the Charlotte Wells movie, it was to the vacationers themselves, waylaid on a holiday in Turkey that becomes a last resort for them. In Animal, Kalia pays the price by staying too long in a place offering no future, only an eternally false present that seems to be putting off the inevitable.

Vlagopoulou is engrossing in a role that has her switching between scenes of onstage ebullience and others where her character clings to a life that no longer offers any fulfillment, whether sexually or professionally. Like the songs her troupe performs again and again, emptying them of their meaning the more they’re repeated, Kalia is caught in a feedback loop that will either break her or have to be broken.