Venice 2015: ‘Heart of a Dog’ review


Heart of a Dog (2015) is the second film in competition at Venice that is essentially an illustrated director’s monologue. Whereas Aleksandr Sokurov’s Francofonia (2015) had an ambitious if indulgent breadth, artist and musician Laurie Anderson focuses her film on her rat-terrier Lolabelle and offers a work of such ephemeral whimsy that it should come with a warning that ‘excessive eye-rolling might cause damage’. We start with a roughly animated Anderson narrating a dream during which she gives birth to her dog. First of all the dog has to be sewn up into her belly and it isn’t a puppy either, so the operation is not easy. However, the birth is successful and she has the bitch passed to her in swaddling.

We follow the pair as Anderson tries to experience the world through her dog’s eyes – blues and greens – as she roams the neighbourhood. We see the store where Lolabelle might pop in to buy a treat. We are shown artwork that Lolabelle has made, abstract paintings and paw print sculptures. At this point it becomes clear: this isn’t actually about the dog’s point of view at all, or even about a dog: it’s an anthropomorphic fantasy. Anderson et chien go on a trip to Northern California where Anderson decides to teach Lolabelle language – apparently her breed can learn five hundred words – but Anderson is distracted by the beauty and they just end up enjoying the holiday. This instance could stand for the general procedure of the film – a flash of an idea dissipating as Anderson wanders off on a tangent.

Anderson recalls her childhood, the death of her mother, the aftermath of 9/11 which is brought to mind by the thought of hawks attack her dog and Lolabelle’s reaction. Text appears on screen. Animation, musical interludes, scratchy, abstract imagery – the snow falls in the woods. Some of it is funny. Some of it is moving. More of it is plain dull. However, Anderson also has things to say about the world and, in particular, the surveillance that has become part of our lives since the attack on the Twin Towers and the beginning on the War on Terror. There is a genuine social concern here and a sense of us all being animals, lost in the woods. Melancholy pervades the cine-essay, especially as she recalls the death of her mother and her own hospitalisation following a terrible childhood accident. In this account she admits to the basic ellipses that storytelling almost inevitably produces. The other children in the ward whose suffering is forgotten; their sudden fatal absences. Storytelling is not so much a way of remembering and holding those memories as it is of forgetting. Anderson fans and dog lovers – or, ideally, a combination of the two – may get more out of Heart of a Dog, but if instead you’re someone who gets enough of other people’s pets on Facebook, you might want to give this one a miss.

The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty