Here is a fierce, bitter tale with a flinty sharpness: partly a social-realist drama of class and xenophobia, and partly a rural noir horror, a Euro-arthouse twist on Straw Dogs or Deliverance. It’s inspired by the true story from 2010 of a middle-class hippy idealist Dutch couple who attempted to settle in the Spanish village of Santoalla in Galicia’s remote “wild west” and fell out badly with their neighbours over their gentrification plans: a row that escalated into a nightmare. It has in fact already been the subject of a documentary, Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer’s Santoalla, and has now been fictionalised by film-maker Rodrigo Sorogoyen.
Denis Ménochet and Marina Foïs play Antoine and Olga, an educated French couple who have moved into the area with big plans to revitalise and modernise its farming techniques. But this film doesn’t give us the gradual deterioration of their relations with the neighbours. As the story begins, they have already infuriated these people irretrievably by vetoing a communal plan to sell out to a wind-turbine company (an issue interestingly also aired in Carla Simon’s film Alcarràs). It was a one-off chance for easy money that local people wanted to grab, tiring of a lifetime of farming toil and angered by these high-handed foreigners airily telling them they’ve been doing it wrong.
The film begins with a hypnotic and deeply disquieting sequence showing how the local Spanish people subdue and kill beasts with their bare hands. Antoine and Olga’s scary hillbilly neighbours are two glowering, resentful brothers: Xan (Luis Zahera) and Lorenzo (Diego Anido), feral and boorish, living with their ancient widowed mother (Luisa Merelas) on what looks to be a squalid and chaotic farm. Their equivalent of playing banjo on the front porch is playing dominoes all afternoon in the local pub, baiting Antoine – who feels he has to make an appearance there – and occasionally inviting him to play; gestures which are pure provocation and contempt. Antoine suspects someone is breaking into his property to sabotage his crops; he begins covertly videoing his neighbours’ behaviour in a hi-tech surveillance which enrages them further.
The Beasts is a movie about fear and resentment, and about Brexit-style nationalist hatreds that exist in a not-exactly-united European Union. The source material itself poses an interesting storytelling dilemma for the film-maker: do you start with the couple’s initially sunny idealism gradually unravelling as neighbour relations break down? Well, not here: Sorogoyen starts in the middle. Or might you start with the eerie mystery of the husband’s climactic disappearance and the local police’s apparent reluctance to help the foreign wife? Again, no: the “true-crime” event occurs two-thirds of the way in.
After this, its final act is a kind of coda: Olga’s grim determination to find her husband’s body with or without police help, to face down continued local harassment, and resist desperate pleas from her grownup daughter Marie (Marie Colomb) to leave this hateful, godforsaken place. Here is where Foïs’ performance raises the movie and strengthens its steel core of anguish.
The Beasts is a strange film in many ways, difficult to pin down tonally or generically, but it leaves a trail of unease in the mind.
• The Beasts is released on 24 March in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.