There are good starting points when it comes to getting away from it all with your husband for six months in the Swiss mountains. Having the strong suspicion that your husband is having an affair isn’t one of them – nor is running over a sheep less than a day into your trip. And what definitely doesn’t help is finding that your reality is fraying at the edges and there’s a creepy black cat telling you to kill your husband before he does the same to you.
Tiere (the German word for Animals), a Swiss-Austrian co-production by Polish director Greg Zglinski, is a difficult film to pin down. In part it’s a psychological drama, in part it’s an atmospheric thriller, there are overtones of horror and there’s even droll, deadpan comedy – the latter owing as much to the script as it does to its lead, the Austrian actress Birgit Minichmayr, always someone to watch out for. The film – and the following constitutes a spoiler, so be warned – owes more than a little to Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, which seems to have a special attraction to German-language directors; whether directly or via other variations on the story, it’s certain to have been one of the main inspirations for Christian Petzold’s Yella as well.
Now, just mentioning Bierce’s story is likely to give away a big plot point, but Tiere cannot be reduced to a puzzle that, once the twist is figured out, yields little else. For one thing, the point of the story Zglinski is telling doesn’t lie in the twist; for another, there are more layers to the narrative than is commonly the case in variations on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. The film is fiercly subjective in what it shows us, but it also keeps its cards close to its chest with respect to whose subjectivity we get. Is this a story about Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) and her jealous fears? Is it about Nick (Philipp Hochmair) and his feelings of guilt, both towards the woman he’s betrayed and the lover he’s about to leave? Both of these are interweaved in ways that keep us on our toes – but then there’s also the (apparent) story strand about Mischa (Mona Petri), the woman who’s supposed to look after Anna and Nick’s flat while they’re taking a sabbatical, Anna to write her first book for adults, her husband Nick (who works as a chef) to collect regional Swiss recipes. Not only does Mischa have the same name as the cat that stars in Anna’s successful series of children’s books, she also looks exactly like the woman on the third floor who seems to be Nick’s clandestine lover – and doesn’t that woman working at the ice cream parlour Anna and Nick come upon in Vevey bear a striking resemblance as well? And why does Mischa end up with her head bandaged exactly like Anna does after the accident?
For the film’s first hour or so, we’re certain that while what we’re seeing is unreliable, at least it’s reliably so: but Tiere‘s constant echoes and funhouse mirror reflections, of characters, situations and lines of dialogue, makes it clear that we cannot trust what we see. Normally this can result in the audience losing all interest: if everything is unreliable, if nothing can be trusted, then a story quickly becomes arbitrary. Tiere doesn’t do this: there is a method to its maddening dance of dreams, hallucinations, fears and fictions. While there’s no one key that resolves everything neatly and puts a bow on it, the film knows what it’s doing. And it’s all grounded by Minichmayr who, even while she’s listening to an emaciated black cat telling her – in French, obviously – that she may want to consider killing her husband, gives her character a sarcastic, earthy quality.
So, if you get a chance to catch Tiere, pack your bags, get in the car and start driving… and watch out for that sheep in the middle of the road, because that may well be where everything starts – and everything ends.