Hundstage : Austria 2001
director : Ulrich Seidl
script : Seidl, Veronika Franz
cinematography : Wolfgang Thaler
editing : Andrea Wagner, Christof Schertenlieb
lead actors : Maria Hofstatter, Christine Jirku, Alfred Mrva, Eric Finsches
also : Victor Hennemann, Georg Friedrich
Over one heatwave weekend, we watch the residents of a dull Austrian suburb fight, fuck and fester. Seidl interweaves six aimless ‘stories’, observing his characters like so many lab rats as they abuse each other physically, mentally, and sexually. There is some humour along the way, but even as we laugh, we’re aware we’re eavesdropping on some tragically desperate existences, that these ordinary people are stunned and defeated by life, with no prospect of better times on the horizon.
Poverty isn’t a factor – most of them live in comfortable, middle-class homes complete with respectable plastic window-shutters. But Seidl goes behind those very Austrian forms of home-security to show the characters stripping off down to their pale, saggy flesh. His gaze is neutral, disconnected, alien. “Cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold,” says a grumpy widower (Finsches) as he plays a hide-and-seek game with his housekeeper (Lehner), and it’s a phrase which pretty much sums up the whole movie – regardless of the thermometer’s scorching temperatures.
As an evocation of what William Burroughs called ‘stasis horrors’, Dog Days takes some beating, but this is becoming a pretty familiar genre nowadays – there’s an over-extended ‘party’ sequence that strongly recalls Philippe Grandrieu’s superior Sombre from 1998. Here, it’s a late-night drunken debauch in which a fortysomething teacher (Jirku) is humiliated by her sleazy, pimp-style lover Wickerl (Henneman) and his hotheaded young pal Lucky (Friedrich). They order her to sing ‘La Cucaracha’, and when she starts on a sweet rendition of ‘Bonjour l’amour’, she’s doused with red wine. Soon after, Lucky throws up on the carpet, and Wickerl suggests they have a “group vomiting session.”
As in Darren Aronofsky’s aggressively harrowing Requiem For A Dream, while we can admire the semi-documentary technique and the strong performances (here the cast comprises professionals and non-pros), there’s something off-putting about the way the director so gloatingly puts everybody through his film – characters, cast and audience alike. “With us, anything goes,” brags the boorish Wickerl, and the same is true for Seidl – he exerts what may be termed ‘misanthropic license’ to wallow in the worst behaviour he can dream up for his hapless characters, and his approach is summed up by David Thomson’s comment on James Toback: “a man with obsessive interests and an unstinting need to be ill at ease. Comfort has been deliberately denied; Toback feats it more than murder.” Of course, life can often be like this – but on screen it’s a bit like spying on your dodgier neighbours: fascinating at first, dull after a while.
And, at two hours, Dog Days does become somewhat repetitive: Seidl keeps returning to the supremely irritating Anna (Hofstatter), a woman who passes her time hitch-hiking around the suburbs and tormenting her drivers with a barrage of rude questions, TV trivia and advertising jingles in her itchy-scratchy whine of a voice. But while even the most easy-going of viewers will have their patience stretched, it’s hard to avoid feeling pity and sympathy for this borderline-autistic, essentially child-like character when we see how she’s drastically punished when her fellow-suburbanites suspect her of scratching their cars’ paintwork.
It’s hard to tell whether Seidl sees this social malaise as universal or specifically Austrian – the emphasis is decidedly local when a gun-toting Lucky, stricken with remorse for the party horrors, urges Wicker to perform the national anthem with a burning candle stuck up his backside (“a people with a gift for beauty” go the grindingly ironic lyrics). But shots of the generic, US-style strip-malls that line the roadsides suggest that it doesn’t really matter what nationality these people are: they’re the victims of a thoroughly depressing modern world, one in which the human spirit seems to have died, unremarked, a little ways back along the road.
12th November, 2001
(seen Nov-12-01, Warner Village, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
This film appeared in the Fipresci Selection 2001-2002 : click here for full list
by Neil Young
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