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    Dog Days

    Some don't like it hot

    Animalism and ennui rule the summer among the outlandish characters of "Dog Days."


    In the sweaty, steamy Vienna of Ulrich Seidl's "Dog Days," disparate characters can't stand the summer heat, so they take it out on each other.

    Original title: Hundstage.
    Directed by: Ulrich Seidl.
    Written by: Veronika Franz, Ulrich Seidl.
    Cast: Maria HofstŠtter, Alfred Mrva, Erich Finsches, Gerti Lehner, Franziska Weiss, Rene Wanko, Claudia Martini, Victor Rathbone, Christian Bakonyi, Christine Jirku, Viktor Hennemann, Georg Friedrich.
    In German with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    The movie shuffles six stories of sunstroked ennui and rage in the city's bland bourgeois suburbs — from a schoolteacher whose date with the bloated, piggish man she professes to love turns violent to the divorced couple who still live together even though they can barely tolerate each other. But while the title would lead you to believe it's the temperature that's making tempers rise, once you get a good look at how these people live, you might conclude their winters are filled with just as much discontent.

    First, the details, by which I mean the vivid quirks and obsessions and banalities that the keen-eyed Seidl offers. The director shows us the characters in those telling alone moments, those bits and pieces of time when people are truly themselves because there's no one around to scrutinize them. So, for example, there's a scene in which the schoolteacher carefully grooms herself for a date. This is not the typical applying-makeup-in-front-of-the-vanity fare but a record of a middle-aged woman, wearing only her underwear, observing her fading beauty and depilating herself. You'll feel like a voyeur, as if you're not supposed to be there seeing this, and at the same time you will be riveted by the raw honesty of it all.

    Dog Days  
    In fact, a lot of the movie has a voyeuristic quality. It's a fictional documentary about what it means to be human, but without the happy-making gloss of a mainstream movie. (No surprise there — Seidl's credits include the doc "Animal Love.") The people are flawed. They make poor choices. They are in denial. They are in pain. That divorced couple — their young daughter died in what appears to have been a car accident some time ago. One imagines the marriage ended as a result of this tragedy, just as they stay living together because of it. The two never talk about their grief, even visiting the girl's roadside memorial separately, but they are at the same time bound by it, unable to completely move on.

    The wife, meanwhile, visits a sex club (yes, we go with her; be prepared for unvarnished carnality) and takes pleasure in her seductive powers and sexual prowess, no doubt thrilled to finally be in control of a situation. The self-help books and the clear-eyed, all-knowing talk-show hosts would have a lot to say about this unhealthy arrangement, but Seidl reminds us that real life is rarely as tidy and conquerable as Dr. Phil says it is.

      Dog Days
    There's a comfort in that, even with all the discomforting moments in "Dog Days." And there are many. Not only does the schoolteacher get beaten up by her beau and a friend of his, a sequence of scenes that seems to last forever, but a young exotic dancer is verbally and physically brutalized by her boyfriend. Those are the explicitly rough parts, but there are also times when characters mentally manipulate each other, and this is often just as difficult to witness. The elderly widower who quietly but sternly controls every aspect of his pliant housekeeper's behavior will not win many fans. The lingering over these various violences feels gratuitous and is also distracting. The teacher's lengthy, ugly encounter plays as if it's from another movie, and one wonders what is achieved by taking viewers so far into her dark world.

    The queasy stuff is leavened, fortunately, by a good deal of good humor. Anna, a woman with short, little-girl bangs and perhaps a touch of madness, hangs out in store parking lots and asks people if she can have a ride. She's got no specific destination; she's just tagging along to wherever. Once in the car, she rambles on with too-personal questions (she asks an overweight, older man if he still has sex) and top-ten lists of trivia. She digs through one woman's purse in the back seat, where the exasperated driver cannot reach her to make her stop. She plays a tape of herself singing songs that she then sings along to in the car. She's like a living TV prank show, but completely benign and as funny to us as she is annoying to the unwitting people who pick her up.

    Maybe the point is that Anna is on the road to nowhere, and, in a way, so are the rest of us. Or maybe that's not the point. The lovely thing about "Dog Days" is that it poses the question, and that's something worth pondering no matter the season.

    AUGUST 26, 2003

    Reader comments on Dog Days:

  • Difficulty of Love   from SirCat, Jun 11, 2004
  • y?   from deedee, Jan 1, 2005
  • Dog Days   from Steve, Feb 27, 2005
  • Re: Dog Days   from melody, Mar 20, 2006

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