Not quite fairy tale or horror film, SQUEAL offers a fanciful allegory for fans of art house cinema.
Squeal features a little pig who goes a long way and even talks (sort of), but this is definitely not Babe (1995). The offbeat Latvian production is an odd hybrid, not quite fairy tale and not quite horror film, though it contains elements of both. Viewers who prefer their genres clearly defined may find the combination baffling, but fans of art house cinema should appreciate the unexpected contrasts. The 2021 production is currently playing exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles, simultaneous with its debut on home video.
The setup seems tailor-made for an epic endurance-test sort of horror movie. English-speaking Samuel (Kevin Janssens), whose accent suggest Australia or New Zealand as his home, is traveling through an unidentified Eastern European country in search of the father he has never met. After a late night collision with an escaped pig, he returns the wounded animal to Kirke (Laura Siliņa), who shows her appreciation by having her father chain Samuel by his neck, naked, in the pig sty. Unable to understand most of what his captors say, he is treated like an animal – mercilessly beaten and forced to eat pig slop until he proves himself worthy of better treatment by doing chores around the family farm. He refuses to slaughter pigs (rendered offscreen with a jarring thud on the soundtrack), but he does have to clean up guts afterward, with his bare hands.
The grim storyline is belied by the stylistic and narrative techniques. The glistening photography suggests a touch of Magic Realism, and running throughout is an English-language narration, backed by delicate harp music, which characterizes the action in proverbial terms, as if we are watching some kind of parable. The one-step remove from reality is stretched even further when the grunts of the wounded pig, now recovered, begin to sound like speech to Samuel’s ears, and eventually the animal’s unlikely intervention offers a possibility of escape….
The clever thing about Squeal is that, although the story seems setup as a jailbreak (how will Samuel escape?), the plot ultimately hinges on whether he will leave or stay – a decision that is presented in allegoric terms, contrasting the desire for security with the desire for freedom. Samuel’s abandoned quest for his father suggests a rootless man with no real home to return to, and his inhuman treatment at the hands of Kirke and her ailing father is motivated by the fact that, unable to maintain their farm, they are selling off their pigs in order to make ends meet, a process that will eventually force them to lose their home – unless the young, healthy Samuel can save them. Has he found the home – if not the father – he was looking for?
The factors pushing Samuel to consider staying (including the fact that Kirke has fallen in love with him) are contrasted with the action of the film’s “magical” pig, who represents the desire for freedom; in fact, the two characters seem to be traveling in opposite directions on the same road. Squeal begins with the escaped animal staring wistfully at a passenger airliner flying overhead (presumably carrying Samuel into the country), while the narration informs us that the pig believed “it’s better to die exhausted in freedom from starvation than to be satiated in slavery.”
Whether it is credible that Samuel would want to stay after suffering his brutal confinement is glossed over by the slightly fantastical elements letting us know not to take the events as a depiction of reality; however, the balance is not quite satisfying. Director Aik Karapetian calls his film a “fairytale” but cites the Greek myth of the goddess Circe as the story’s main inspiration. Fairy tales and myths are very different animals: the former tend to be simple tales in which virtuous characters triumph over evil step-mothers; the latter tend toward tragic tales in which heroes fall afoul of the wrath of the gods, because human frailty brings down even the most virtuous of heroes.
Mixing the two together is even trickier than mixing film genres, and the combination does not quite coalesce into a fully satisfying conclusion. Squeal ends on a bit of a question mark, which is probably the right choice – enough has been established for audiences to decide for themselves what happens next – but the factors are weighted in such a way that the most likely resolution is not the one we would have preferred (and also the final shot of the “freedom” pig looks like a completely different animal from the one seen throughout the rest of the film).
Quibbles aside, Squeal‘s unusual approach is intriguing, and the refusal to go in the obvious direction keeps the narrative interesting and unpredictable until the end.
Hollywood Gothique's rating of Squeal
1 – Avoid
2 – Not recommended but not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Neither fish nor fowl, Squeal is a genre hybrid of fairy tale and horror film. The former is a matter of visual style and narrative allegory more than of any actual fantasy elements. The latter is represented by the basic story: innocent traveler captured and confined by rural crazies, who treat him more like livestock than like a human. There is also some unpleasantness with animal slaughter and a fire in the pig sty.
Despite the stylistic affectations, the film remains emotionally grounded throughout, thanks to powerful performances by the entire cast, particularly Janssens, who has relatively little to say because he does not speak the language of his captors. Laura Siliņa, Aigars Vilims, and Normunds Griestiņš all do a great job of portraying menacing, mean-spirited, or selfish characters who turn out to have relatable motives for their horrible behavior.
With the help of lovely cinematography and great music, director Aik Karapetian keeps the film’s disparate elements stirred up so that they remain in suspension throughout the running time, but they never fully dissolve into a stable solution. Still the mixture is novel enough to hold interest, especially for fans of art house and/or foreign cinema.
Squeal (a.k.a. Sema ceļojumi [“Samuel’s Travels”], 2021). Directed by Aik Karapetian. Written by Aik Karapetian, Aleksandr Rodionov. Cast: Kevin Janssens, Laura Siliņa, Aigars Vilims, Normunds Griestiņš, Juris Bartkevičs, Guntis Pilsum. In English and Latvian (with subtitles). 85 mins. Unrated. US Theatrical & VOD Release Date: August 19, 2022.
Squeal is currently playing a one-week engagement at Lumiere Cinema at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills.