The mood in the evocative opening credits of Jonas Alexander Arnby‘s coming-of-age werewolf tale, “When Animals Dream,” coils around the senses like a seductive viper. As the soulful violin plays over translucent antique brass images of the Danish countryside, and names are lured out of the mist, you get the feeling that you’re in for something truly great. Alas, it’s a feeling that becomes more ephemeral with every passing minute of the film’s running time. Quentin Tarantino made headlines last week with his interview, in which he singled out “It Follows” as a recent example of a film that’s “so good you get mad at it for not being great,” pointing out that David Robert Mitchell “broke” his mythology. Well, in Arnby’s case, you can’t break something that’s not even there. It’s a narrative vacuum big enough to make you mad at this melancholy werewolf drama for not being, at the very least, good.
Here’s the barebones plot, but be warned, you might get hungry. Marie (Sonia Suhl) is a subdued young 16-year-old, who lives in a coastal Danish fishing village with her father (Lars Mikkelsen) and physically disabled mother (Sonja Richter). We meet her in the doctor’s office after discovering a strange mark on her body, which the doctor swiftly brushes off as “probably nothing” but then, oddly, asks to see her again in a month. She takes her mom on tender strolls around the desolate landscape that looks like a discolored Niels Walseth painting, and returns home to a depressed dad who still keeps the nature of his wife’s condition hidden from his daughter. She finds a new rash over her right breast but doesn’t think much of it, and goes to work the next day at a local fishery. There, she returns Daniel’s (Jakob Oftebro) flirty glances, and tries to ignore a couple of bullies. With an increasingly hard time at work, where she continues to be taunted and humiliated for being odd and having a mysteriously sick mother, and a household where things become more frustrating after the doctor starts to pay more visits, life is tough for Marie. Thanks to a few brief moments, and some solid sound effects, we know that all of Marie’s troubles stem from her turning into a werewolf. The trouble is: we couldn’t care less.
Three people are credited with the original idea (Rasmus Birch, Christoffer Boe, and Arnby himself), which is a real puzzle given how stripped-down and hollow this idea is. Sure, treating werewolf-ism as a hereditary disease that affects a young girl on the brink of womanhood is filled with all kinds of potential, not to mention the attractive poke at the classic fairytale where the Beauty becomes the Beast, so the original bit stands. But without firm ground for the story’s mythos (something about a ship?), with practically zero information about who this girl is, or who her mother is, the ultimate message of “be yourself” is deflated like an abandoned beige balloon. Should monsters that kill people really be themselves, or should they try to find a cure that won’t turn them into vegetables? Yeah, yeah, it’s all just a metaphor. But with woefully one-dimensional characters, and a narrative that wallows in self-pity whenever it’s not scrambling over its most critical action, that question holds more water than anything in this story.
A damn shame too, because cinematographer Niels Thastum, composer Mikkel Hess, and Mikkelsen and Suhl — the two actors who give their all not to be stifled by Birch’s conventional dialogue — are far better than the material they’re working with. Hess uses strings, harmoniums, and electroacoustic impulses to create a score that’s both beautiful and poignantly unnerving. Thastum’s exterior wide shots of the fishing village are resplendent, but belong in a picture that can sustain their beauty, while Mikkelsen shows why he’s been picking up some international steam on TV (“House of Cards,” “Sherlock,” not to mention his work on fantastic Danish shows like “Borgen” and “The Killing“). And young Sonia Suhl, who makes her screen debut, does a very fine job of balancing her teen fragility with her adopted feral nature. Her future is bright, but the other debutant here, director Jonas Alexander Arnby, needs to pick a much meatier story if he wants his bark to have some bite. [C-]