It’s entirely fitting that Kornél Mundruczó begins his latest film with a dedication to the late Miklos Jancsó. Not only would the famed Hungarian auteur have had an enormous impact on his compatriot, but the latter’s White God (2014) wears those influences proudly on its collar. Jancsó’s preoccupations with the abuse of power are clear to see in this surreal and compelling new work, though Mundruczó has re-jigged the allegory from the oppression of the Communist regime of decades past, to that dished out to the marginalised in modern society. In this instance, the victim is a dog who decides that enough is enough, and leads his canine companions in brutal rebellion.
It’s like the straw that broke Balthazar’s back – it’s difficult not to bring to mind Robert Bresson’s meditation on suffering when watching this film’s opening half – but this beast’s burden packs considerably more bite. When Hagen is abandoned on a roadside he embarks on a treacherous homeward trek, but soon The Incredible Journey (1963) has been twisted into Cujo (1983) via the unwanted intervention of some of Budapest’s less reputable denizens. The title is presumably an allusion partly to Samuel Fuller’s powerful White Dog (1982), which also revolves around a hound whose hatred is born of a thousand beatings, but is equally suggestive of perceived racial superiority that Hagen and allies revolt against. The catalyst for his initial rejection is not just that he’s a mongrel, but a foreign mongrel.
In this stick-and-carrot scenario, the root vegetable is a young girl, Lili (Zsófia Psotta). In the first third, which combines the director’s visual verve with a social realist’s intimate handheld camerawork, Lili and Hagen are shown to have a touching bond. Bathed in both golden hour sunlight or in a bathroom coloured in cold hues, their kinship is evident and It is this that imbues their separation with the required emotional pull. While Lili’s story continues on its human trajectory reminiscent of much understated European drama – and her strained relations with her absentee father – Hagen’s cycles through genres at a rate of knots. From man’s best friend, he is subsequently exploited on the streets and then trained to be a savage fighting dog. The blood on his maw is soon human, however, when he escapes the pound and the film morphs into a revenge thriller combined with a Planet of the Apes-style uprising. It’s shot with a meticulous attention to stylish and elegant presentation by Mundruczó and his DoP Marcell Rév – most obvious in a sensational and surreal opening sequence that follows Lili cycling through a deserted Budapest to reveal that she is being pursued by hundreds of dogs. Whether they are chasing her, or she is leading them is a question left unanswered, even in the film’s glorious closing shots. The ultimate message may be a little fuzzy, but Mundruczó has crafted a incredibly cinematic canine parable that remains gripping and inventive from its nose to its tail.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson