Cannes ‘22: Bittersweet Tragedy Abounds in ‘God’s Creatures’

Paul Mescal (Brian) strands next to Emily Watson (Aileen) outside a small house in the countryside. In the background is a heather covered hill, out of focus. He is wearing a heavy, beige jumper and is standing with his hands in his pockets. She has on a baggy green top and had her arms crossed protectively over her chest.
Courtesy of A24

Seven years after Anna Rose Holmer’s debut The Fits made the festival rounds with a glowing success, the American director has teamed up with her writer-editor collaborator, Saela Davis, to treat us to ambivalent pleasures in God’s Creatures. Premiering in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, the film offers a rich and textured representation of an Irish fishing village. The Atlantic Sea Fish factory is the epicentre of a tumultuous familial drama which weighs in heavily on all its characters, without reaching for heavy-handed fish metaphors.

On the contrary, the all-women factory provides a site for kinship, as we meet Aileen (Emily Watson) and her younger colleague Sarah (Aisling Franciosi) during a regular cigarette break. Their amicable relation suggests an intergenerational solidarity, as well as a hospitable small town environment. Enter the prodigal son, Brian (Paul Mescal) to expose this perceived harmony and stir up some ghosts from the past: while no backstory is given to his lengthy absence, he carries an air of fascination and hushed trauma upon his supposed return from Australia.

While he doesn’t seem the kind of guy to leave piles of clothes on the floor for his mummy to diligently fold away – nor does Watson’s character seem the kind to like doing so – Brian’s aura of je-ne-sais-quoi leaves a gap between seeing him and knowing him; a rift which invites violent refractions. It’s exciting to see Mescal take the emotional ambiguity which defined his Connell in Normal People to new, more harrowing levels while also retaining a crafty and paced performance. With an initial optimism, he takes on his grandfather’s oyster rearing business but soon resorts to more dubious means of getting by. While money rarely appears on screen, nor is it spoken of explicitly, it’s the guiding force for this working-class town where everyone tries to make ends meet. It’s in such details that the transactional nature of Brian’s relationships becomes apparent, not only in relation to his mother, but also to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah.

In an emotionally apt way, Sarah becomes the meeting point between mother and son and a line of division nonetheless. With subtle insistence, God’s Creatures explores multiple facets of male patriarchal violence, and the breathing space between lesson and dogmatism is assured in equal parts by the astutely penned characters and the superb acting. Watson, Mescal, and Franciosi bring out both the best and the worst in each others’ characters, and the emotional crux of the film relies heavily on their delicate balance being repeatedly shattered. . This play of power is often exemplified in director of photography Chayse Irvin’s expressive use of static camera in close-ups, which holds the characters hostage until they eventually break free by leaving the visual field entirely.

A tension of presence and absence permeates the film on a narrative level, and is also emphasised by the use of diegetic sounds (and enchanting traditional songs) layered on top of the harsh noises which come with fish mongering and oyster-farming. For example, the clicking sounds of shells hitting the conveyor belt are easily repurposed as ominous markers of suspense in scenes in and out of the factory. As a result, the presence of marine animal life bleeds into a human world which is heavily reliant on critters as capital, but the recurrent interludes of water surfaces, tides, fish (dead, alive, and cooked) suggests a coexistence that is not necessarily reduced to a metaphorical order. While the expression ‘god’s creatures’ applies to humans and animals alike, Homer and Davis have done a marvellous job at paying each their own.

God’s Creatures played as part of the QUINZAINE strand at Cannes Film Festival.

Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian London-based freelance critic. In her spare time, she is a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European films. She lives from one film festival to the other, always on the hunt for animality, otherness, and visceral filmmaking. Savina admires bold story-telling as much as feeling-telling and defines her approach to criticism as sharp and ethically challenging. She is a regular MUBI Notebook contributor and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine, photogenie, and Girls On Tops. You can find her on Twitter @SavinaPetkova

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