Unpleasant and bewildering in a way that seems somehow unfortunately worthwhile, Animal Love is like the grimy flipside of a warm and fuzzy Animal Planet show. Austrian director Ulrich Siedl lobbed this into the squirming public's lap all the way back in 1995, but it's just now finding its premiere in Rochester (maybe being banned in Norway helped).
Most of the film is actually dedicated to documenting various freaks and losers grinding out derelict lives in squalid apartments in Austria. Their often unhealthy and exploitative relationships with their pets are used as the basis for insight to their obsessions and ways of dealing with the world. It's brilliant, it's terrible; you shouldn't see it, and you should.
Three other films immediately come to mind: the first is Errol Morris's greatest achievement, Gates of Heaven. Ostensiblyabout pet cemeteries, that doc coaxed from its human subjects a multitude of the philosophies and quirks that defined them, good or bad.
Animal Love clearly shoots for the same effect, if in a thoroughly more cynical and dispiriting vein. A scurvy youngfellow buys a bunny for the sake of better cadging change from passersby, and then later, after his sexual ignorance has been conveniently shown, offers his tongue to his dog to kiss. (Yes, there is much in this vein; no, there is no bestiality.)
I say "conveniently" because it becomes clear right away watching this film that it is not fully a documentary, and does not pretend to be. It's full of static, artfully composed shots, often with a pair of people consciously split between background and foreground. And yet, something tells you that these are real people. It turns out the director disdains boundaries between documentary and fiction (he has a writing credit on the film, although there is no voiceover), and will only say that these are real people sometimes doing things he has asked them to do. This is essentially a documentary with fictive garnish.
Which brings us to Dadetown, a fake documentary about the corporate erosion of a small town, and the second film Animal Love recalls. Meant to fool you up to the end credits, Dadetown loses pretty much all of its power as social critique at whatever point you realize it's a fake --- it's hard to find injustice in a synthesized situation, and the film is not compelling as fiction. Not so with Animal Love.
The points and associations being made are compelling, disturbing, and salient (if toward the end they are ridden a bit hard as the film overstays its welcome). As pure, staged fiction, it would essentially be Gummo (film number three), and I would probably embrace Siedl's film as enthusiastically as I did Harmony Korine's if it were.
If only it were. It would be a lot easier to take. Most of this movie is pretty creepy, and there is an excruciating scene of one dog attacking another while their owners are walking them. I doubt very much that was fake, and if I weren't reviewing the film, I probably would have stopped watching at that point.
In another sequence, a little show dog is shown on a platter as decoration in a living room, just after a few seemingly staged shots of dogs tied on short tethers inside the house (although who knows, maybe people really do that). It's a disturbing succession of images, but an evocative one, and an example of the creative intelligence behind the disquieting nature of the film. But at other times Seidl's interests are more than I can bear.
When the dog that attacks the other is finally freed, your sympathies and interest are firmly with the injured dog. But you never find out how he is --- you never see him after he is pulled away. Siedl's camera stays planted on the aggressor. With this movie, you only get the ugly.
Animal Love screens at the Dryden Theatre, in the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, on Friday, August 27, at 8 p.m. and on Saturday, August 28, at 5 p.m.
--- Andy Davis