The Beasts: a tense tale of nightmare neighbours in windswept Galicia

Denis Ménochet and Marina Foïs are superb as a French couple who move to Galicia to farm organic produce, only to be increasingly beleaguered by two prickly locals embittered by the newcomers’ anti-windfarm stance.

23 March 2023

By Guy Lodge

Denis Ménochet as Antoine in The Beasts (2022)
Sight and Sound

Bad-neighbour stories in film often fall into one of two categories. There’s the mordant comedy of mundane conflict, as ordinary people chip away at each other in ways we recognise with a wince. And there’s more extreme psychodrama, as one party gradually realises something is very wrong indeed with the others next door – or, if you will, across their rear window.

In Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s nippy, nerve-raddled The Beasts, however, the one mode of story spills over into the other, so insidiously that we don’t realise the extent of the neighbour danger until it’s too late – and the terms of dispute must be drawn anew. And while the close-quarters geography of most neighbour stories tend to dictate a certain homogeneity between otherwise opposed households, this terrific study of turf wars in rural Galicia folds a world of thorny social politics – working-class versus bourgeois, immigrant versus indigenous, community versus individual – into the increasingly ugly feud at its core. Sympathies aren’t apportioned as tidily as you’d expect. Everybody emerges a loser.

Tucked in Spain’s northwesternmost reaches, perched above Portugal and hemmed in by water on two sides, the rural region of Galicia has a literally cornered, insular quality conducive to the fractiousness of Sorogoyen’s slow-burning narrative. It’s a hilly, knobbly landscape, shot by cinematographer Alex de Pablo in rained-on earth tones that look consistently autumnal even as the story cycles through seasons, and then years. You might wonder why French couple Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Olga (Marina Foïs), middle-aged and middle-class, have settled on this part of Spain to build a new life for themselves; many of the weary, impoverished residents in their chosen village certainly do.

But Antoine and Olga are drawn to challenge. Well educated and ecologically conscious, they see themselves as an asset to an underprivileged environment, as they renew and renovate a series of derelict properties, and ethically farm organic vegetables to hawk at local markets. Unsurprisingly, most of the local Galicians don’t take quite such a romantic view, and their two nearest neighbours are especially wary. Surly livestock farmer Xan (a superb Luis Zahera) and his mentally impaired brother Loren (Diego Anido) scrape together a living on the scrubby, long-owned family farmstead they share with their elderly mother. The brothers don’t share the French couple’s idealistic regard for a landscape that has never treated them especially kindly; when a team of wind-farm developers offers to buy them out, they’re all too happy to take the money and start a new, urban life for themselves far from the mountain. But the deal hinges on the whole village agreeing to sell; the outsiders, who need the money least, are the holdouts.

Luis Zahera and Diego Anido as Xan and Loren in The Beasts (2022)
Lucia Faraig

Across a measured but never sluggish 137-minute runtime, Sorogoyen and co-writer Isabel Peña mark escalating tensions in stages as slow but inexorable as changes of weather. As an impasse presents itself, the local menfolk first make their displeasure known through passive-aggressive exchanges with Antoine at the village bar. Less passively, they then resort to poisoning the couple’s water supply. It’s not the most drastic measure they’ll take.

Assuming the foreigners’ perspective, The Beasts cultivates a tightening sense of terror as it dawns on Antoine and Olga that they have no allies in this battle. Even as notionally civil relations break down, however, the film doesn’t quite make villains of their antagonists. There’s a palpable, worn-to-the-bone hunger to the brothers’ relentless campaign that remains glumly sympathetic even when it lurches far beyond the bounds of reasonability.

Zahera’s gnarled, wily performance smartly keeps in play the question of whether Xan is driven to deranged measures by need, or whether his neighbours’ resistance to his demands merely aggravates a latent psychotic streak. For much of its duration, even in its most deliberate stretches, The Beasts is kept taut by the gruff alpha staring contest between him and Ménochet’s bearish man of admittedly self-serving principle. But it only takes one to blink for the flintily loyal, perennially underestimated Olga, played by Foïs with a grave, implacable certainty in all she does, to emerge as a secret weapon – and for the film, hitherto an apparent departure from Sorogoyen’s female-driven 2019 melodrama Mother in its preponderance of sweaty, scowling testosterone, to reveal its steely feminist spine.

The Beasts is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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