'Flow' (2024) Film Review: A Gleaming, Fully Accomplished Cat-astrophy

'Flow' animation feature still (2024)

The first shot of the exuberantly meditational 'Flow' by Latvian Gints Zilbalodis, a co-production between Dream Well (Latvia), Sacre­bleu Productions (France), and Take Five (Belgium), has a black cat mirroring itself in the water -a source of life and destruction, but here a source of identity making as well. The sophomore feature by the Latvian animation filmmaker promises fewer archetypical scenes and purposedly more empathetic characters than his 'Away' (our 'Away' review here); yet the grand, immersive scope is still there -both works could be part of a diptych (or a future trilogy).

Instead of a boy protagonist, a cat who only meows lives happily in a place abandoned by humans - think of Bruno Bozzetto's 'Valse Triste' sequence from 'Allegro Non Troppo' (1977) but in a much shinier environment -abandonment in Gints Zilbalodis' works always looks and feels nice. The cat soon has to face the incoming flood, and he will find refuge on a boat; he is joined by a capybara, a golden retriever dog, a lemur with a passion for mirrors (another stare at our image-needed ability), and a white-feathered bird. Knowing this is an indie animation feature, we soon get acquainted with the non-speaking animals and the realization that no one else is someone else's sidekick -so no wisecrackers, easy laughs, and no pop culture references. Only a group of outcasts -and Zilbalodis and his co-screenwriter Matiss Kaza make it clear in different scenes that each animal has a reason to be expelled from its own species. Our favorite: the epic fight between the white-feathered birds, the rise and the submission, with the cat as a silent (and frightened) observer.

Zilbalodis' immersive environment, also helped by his meticulously moving camera, and his going out to nature inevitably bring Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in mind. Yet, aside from the different 3D computer animation handling (with character designs, especially when moving, looking like we're watching a malleable clay animation film), Zilbalodis embeds his respect for the environment's grandeur in a very humanlike emotion. The awe that Miyazaki's works inspire is here substituted with the wonder that the characters (the cat foremost) express. The wonder as the primary emotion makes characters move; and Zilbalodis frequently puts his character in several situations that cause wonder, in their journey toward a safe place. Using his mythological elements to a minimum (but still invoking some giant creatures, in an impromptu Terrence Malick-style of 'Tree of Life'), 'Flow' feels like a real-time exposure to the primal instinct of survival, need, and need for a community build. (No wonder that the abandoned human-made buildings still look spectacular).

Watch a 'Flow' clip:

The plot is primarily episodic here, yet it is seamless, like passing through different gates each time (some comic scenes with the lemur protagonist are welcome, but they still distract). The overarching idea of primordial wonder gets its apotheosis in the ascension scene involving the cat and the bird. As always in his work, Zilbalodis is also responsible for his splendidly discordant art direction (think of nature vs. human artifacts coexisting in the same shots in all their imposing elements). His lighting ensures the meditative feeling of the narrative, working with light hues even in the darkest waters. (For all its underwater scenes, 'Flow' feels best when it handles muddy waters instead of deep oceans).

Animation is here to serve a realistic animal movement, but in cases of distress (swimming, climbing, etc); so the stylized, non-rigid 3D design here fits its purpose; the soundtrack (also by Gints Zilbalodis, along with Rihards Zaļupe) can be both energetic and grandiose (and gives us, along with the pertinent sound design, its distinct signposts).

'Flow' may remind many environmentally-minded films, but it is not a plea for the saving of the world outside us. It primarily showcases concerns about our self-image and compassion (yes, in a natural environment under danger); it doesn't give easy clues or a flashy dramatic arc. It keeps its tempo throughout (not slow, not frantic), and the world it crafts is always a place to behold and participate. One of the early, standout animation features of the year.

'Flow' world premiered at Cannes Film Festival 2024 (Un Certain Regard).

contributed by: Vassilis Kroustallis

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