Saturday, October 24, 2015
It would be seductive to characterize Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days (2001) as a carnival of degradation -- but that would be inaccurate: at a carnival, people have fun. No one enjoys the squalor on display in Dog Days. In fact, Seidl's lumpy, zombie Austrians wallow in nonchalant misery -- but, then, misery is also too strong of a word. Just as no one enjoys themselves in Seidl's film, no one really suffers much more than some serious discomfort -- a state of affairs signaled by the prickly heat and subtropical humidity in which the three days and nights chronicled by the movie takes place. Mario is a stud with a fast car and a pliant, blonde girlfriend as beautiful as an angel; unfortunately, Mario is afflicted with jealous rage and, after making love to his girlfriend, drags her around by the hair, calls her names, and, then, beats her up -- abandoning the gorgeous Fraulein on the shoulder of the highway, not once but twice ("Einmal is Keinmal.") Not to worry: Austrians pick up hitchhikers as witness by the story of Anna, an autistic girl, who cadges rides to nowhere from passing motorists and, then, torments her benefactors with lists of the ten top grocery stores or the ten most fatal diseases interspersed with prying questions and remarks: "do you wake up with a hard-on?" or "you have weird teeth." A Greek has an unhappy wife. She invites a masseur over for a night of casual sex while her husband plays handball with himself in a drained swimming pool in the back yard. The next morning, the Greek deploys a handgun (everyone in Austria seems to be armed to the teeth) to force his wife's lover to share a beer with him over the breakfast table. An old man persuades his elderly housekeeper to do an elaborate strip-tease for him -- "very oriental," he says approvingly as the 75-year-old lady wiggles around naked. Later, someone poisons his mastiff. The people in the neighborhood, a bleak Austrian subdivision under white bleached skies on a white bleached plain, are upset because some mysterious marauder is dragging a key over their BMW's. A sweaty guy who sells security systems kidnaps the autistic hitchhiker, installs her in the basement of a hellish cement lake-shore cabin, a half-dozen bunkers of pre-stressed concrete facing a half-acre lagoon, where the neighbors aggrieved by the vandalism of their cars all take turns raping and torturing her -- "she's the one who wrecked the cars," the security systems salesman says with dubious certainty, "not like the last one..." thereby, signifying the folks in this neighborhood have kidnapped and sexually abused someone else previously, a local pastime and sport it seems... Wickerl is an aging rocker with a mullet and big breasts from smoking lots of marijuana; he has a middle-aged girlfriend who obligingly presents herself to him to be degraded -- when he comes into her apartment, she's bent over with her ass exposed to his ministrations. (We've previously observed her carefully tweezing and shaving her pubic area.) Wickerl is bored by her passivity and brings over his bi-polar buddy, Lucky, with whom he intends to share his lady-friend. Things get out of control and Wickerl beats up his girlfriend after first half-drowning her in the toilet. The next day, Lucky wants to apologize to the battered woman, or rape her or both: when Wickerl shows up, Lucky tortures him by sticking a burning candle up his rectum and, then, making the masochistic middle-aged girlfriend put out cigarettes on poor Wicky's hand while reciting in a sing-song "Wicky has a limp dicky" -- this too much for the girlfriend, who proclaims her undying love for Wickerl, a declaration that causes Lucky to cast aside his Saturday-night special pistol and sit in stairwell, sullenly carving up his own arm with his switchblade. These festivities are shot in documentary style by non-actors who apparently improvised their lines, mostly obscenities and threats, as the camera was rolling. Presumably, Seidl recruited his cast, all of whom have to appear drenched in sweat with black eyes or split lips and naked for most of the film, from a local Swinger's club -- there are a number of tableaux of alarmingly strenuous-looking orgies involving group-sex among the big-bellied Austrians featured in the film. The movie is an exercise in nihilism, completely without anything approximating emotion -- the characters are mostly so repellant that you can't identify with them and their motivations, which seem mostly to involve sado-masochistic sexual urges, are inscrutable. There's a moment of grace when the autistic hitchhiker happens on a religious lady who sings hymns with the poor girl on one of her pointless trips through the strip-malls and industrial wastelands of small town Austria -- but this ends when the girl begins gratuitously asking the woman if she's "too old to have sex." The middle-aged femme fatale involved with Wickerl shows a moment of misguided courage and loyalty when she refuses to put out a third cigarette on the fat ne'er-do-well's Wicki's outstretched hand -- "I love him, I truly love him," she says. Dog Days looks like a bit like Harmony Korinne's early films -- it has something of the dumpster aesthetic of Gummo, although the film is made in German by an Austrian and, therefore, is much icier and abstract; in fact, Korinne's work looks warm by comparison. There is clearly something wrong with the Austrians -- I sensed this when I spent a week in Vienna. Sex equals death to Austrian intelligentsia and love is indistinguishable from degradation of the most severe kind. It is the same sensibility on display in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher and that director's earlier films about squalor in the Austrian suburbs, particularly, The Seventh Continent and Code Unknown. Dog Days is an accomplished enough film, but it is essentially a cryogenic suicide note.