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Austria’s Great Unwashed
Dir. Ulrich Seidl, Austria, TK company
Dog Days is a “Shower Film,” a genre I conceived in my middle teens to describe those films which made me want to shower after viewing them. Neither horror nor romantic comedy, as one might initially expect, “Shower Films” infect with what is too often erroneously labeled “atmosphere,” I imagine some yellow-brown rash-inducing gas I can’t see, that settles slowly into the pores during a screening. You’ve probably felt it: the itch that follows you out of the theater, splintering and coloring your perception of the world into kaleidoscopic disgust-o-rama; all you want for remedy is to see something “normal” like a sitcom, or “pretty” like a Britney Spears video. Among the genre’s leaders (look for my top ten list of “Shower Directors”) Harmony Korine, Gaspar Noe, Phillippe Grandrieux, and John Waters frequently inspire a turn of the nozzle from “light spray” to “hard stream,” and with his latest serving of Viennese “living” in the country’s sweaty suburbs, I’m proud to announce that Austrian Ulrich Seidl has officially joined that dirty quartet.
Conceived amidst summer’s hottest stretch, Dog Days is a vision of ultra-contemporary suburban existence writhing in “atmosphere” simultaneously suffered and incited by Siedl’s characters—played both by professional and non-professional actors (incidentally, a defining tenant of the genre). Struggling the Chinese-finger trap tighter and tighter until a final gulp of gassy air is all that remains, various narratives, some linked, others not, weave together a treatise on suburban malaise and its myriad offspring, apathy, lethargy, frustration, etc., that is utterly unforgettable. The cast of characters and their stories just about says it all.
A mildly-retarted woman wanders a supermarket parking lot looking for rides; once in the back seat, she rattles off inane top ten lists and tactlessly announces to old, fat, and (most likely) sexually inactive passengers, that they’re old, fat, and most likely sexually inactive. A divorced couple, still living together in the same house, waits for the other to move out, in silence; he incessantly bounces a tennis ball off the walls and plays with firearms, while she frequents orgies and flaunts in-home sexual relations with her masseuse. A security alarm salesman tries to convince the leiderhosen-clad old-timer that technology is safer than his mid-sized dog before having his life threatened by an angry customer. A jealous boyfriend brutalizes his date because other men gazed, a schoolteacher is raped and beaten by her lover and his friend. And it all goes downhill from there.
In Seidl’s film, a pubic hair trim gets considerable screen-time, an aged housekeeper performs a striptease for her employer, and at gunpoint, an Austrian Ron Jeremy sings the country’s national anthem on all fours while the gunman—his best friend only the night before—sticks a lit candle in his ass. Trust me, the film is rich with metaphor and praiseworthy artistry, it’s just not the kind of thing you want to watch everyday; for characters and audience alike, there is no respite.
But Dog Days won Venice’s Grand Jury Prize for good reason, and those who can stomach Seidl will find a true connoisseur of the low-budget image, an anti-aesthete with a taste for sucking the marrow from his human subjects and splattering it across the the screen in a unique mise-en-scène irreverence. Austrian suburbs—and for that matter, their inhabitants—never looked so claustrophobic, processed, and just-plain-ugly, and the filmmaker’s keen eye for striking, understated composition, is undeniably moving and often quite funny.
It’s not pretty, but outside one of the worlds most beautiful cities, Ulrich Siedl has crafted a cinematic sewer pipe straight to the heart of modernity’s unfortunate detritus with simultaneous truculence and grace. Doubtless it’ll be here and gone before you know it—this kind of film never finds a wide audience—but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Just pick up some extra Dial on the way home, there’s gonna be a lot of scrubbing. —Matthew Plouffe