When Jacques Blanchot (Vincent Macaigne) loses everything – his wife, his son, his house – he finds comfort first in buying a dog, before increasingly behaving like one. Receiving its world premiere at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival, Samuel Benchetrit’s Dog might be barking, but has it got the requisite bite?
Kafka’s famous novella had the protagonist Gregor Samsa transform magically into a bug. Belgian writer and director Benchetrit has adapted his own novel into a black comedy with similar magical tendencies. Blanchot is a puppy faced, middle-aged sad sack, with a comb-over an non-ironic Alpen woolly jumper and a permanent smile of incipient imbecility. His wife (Vanessa Paradis) announces her need to separate from him in the opening scene. She explains to the credulous husband that she has a rare allergy which has now been named after him and she is physically suffering in his presence. His son doesn’t seem particularly upset, nor impressed by getting a disease named after them.
Seeking consolation, Jacques buys a dog and all the paraphernalia, but it doesn’t end well and once more he finds himself alone in a hotel room with a lonely and uncertain future. Things go from bad to worse when he realises that his wife has already got another lover and he is also fired from his job as a sales clerk in an art supply shop that sits in a wasteland parking lot.
The first ten minutes of Dog are genuinely brilliant. The off-kilter humour immediately brings to mind the work of Roy Andersson or the Argentinian anthology film Wild Tales. Jacques inhabits a comic universe where helicopters collide mid air and no one seems to notice. However, Jacques passivity – more bovine than canine – sets him up for a series of ordeals which becomes significantly crueler as the film progresses and Jacques comes under the thrall of pet shop owner and dog trainer (Bouli Lanners). The trainer is a sadistic as the film is masochistic. There’s also a dog whistle misogyny as all the woes that befall Jacques are ultimately rooted in his wife’s decision to divorce, a fact reinforced by the occasional flashes of her face that we get while Jacques is getting his face punched in.
Ultimately the film is a fantasy of male passivity – a powerlessness that abrogates all responsibility. Being a dog means sleeping on the rug, being free of sexual jealousy, paying the mortgage and making decisions. The film is fired by the same longings that feed the current rage for cuckold porn. Dog is beautifully shot by Guillaume Deffontaines, Bruno Dumont’s cinematographer and Macaigne fully commits to his Crufts impersonation. However, it’s a film which mistreats not only the animals and the protagonist but also the audience.