Dog Days

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Dog Days

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Lest anyone believe that manicured lawns, cookie-cutter housing tracts, and logo-emblazoned strip malls were the exclusive signposts of American suburbia, the Austrian film Dog Days, the feature debut of Ulrich Seidl, suggests that the rot has spread at least as far as Vienna. An episodic, Short Cuts-style tapestry of misery, cruelty, and transgression in the sticks, the film chases 118 minutes of unrelieved ugliness with two minutes of pity, and it's hard to determine which ploy is more cynical. Admired in some circles for his quirky and unsparing documentaries about urban alienation, Seidl shares with Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The Piano Teacher) a precise and rigorous sadism, minus any discernable point of view–moral, sociological, political, or otherwise. Bad things happen to people for two hours, and then the movie ends, without a clear indication of what might have afforded their despair, let alone what anyone might gain from witnessing it. Minute by minute, however, Seidl displays formidable control over his bleak compositions, with a special eye for pale, lumpen bodies that seem to reflect the tortured souls trapped within them. (Were Dog Days released as a series of still photographs instead of as a full-length feature, it might have been more affecting, since grotesquerie tends to look more poignant and truthful when frozen in time.) Set in an unnamed Vienna suburb during a sweltering summer weekend, the multiple story threads occasionally intersect, but they're mainly connected only by weather conditions. The characters include an elderly widower who tries to squeeze his housekeeper into his ex-wife's image, a divorced couple who still occupy the same house, an unscrupulous burglar-alarm salesman who creates his own business, and a middle-aged teacher victimized by her sexually depraved boyfriend and his psychotic buddy. The odd woman out is a crude, autistic hitchhiker (Maria Hofstätter), who provokes her fellow passengers with nasty comments about sex, hygiene, and the contents of a frankfurter. Working with non-professional actors, Seidl emphasizes their ordinariness to the point of cartoonish ridicule, putting them in scenarios either banal, perverse, or both at the same time. When he's not slathering their misshapen figures in tanning oil, he goes behind closed doors to show other ghastly sights, such as a battered woman clipping her pubic hair and devouring chicken in her underwear, or an elderly housekeeper performing a striptease. While it's tempting to interpret these admittedly indelible images as sardonic or even beautiful at times, the ratio between empathy and misanthropy in Dog Days is staggeringly lopsided. Seidl gives voice to his characters' private pain; whether he actually cares about them is another question.