Dog Days (2001) is the debut fiction film from documentation Ulrich Seidel. The non-narrative movie is a series of vignettes with a cast of oddball characters who all live in the same premanufactured tract housing neighborhoods during a sweltering Austrian summer that seems to bring out the worst in people, mainly depravity and pity. Cast with non-actors, the film has a Short Cuts or Gummo style, the latter being more appropriate since Harmony Korine and Seidel seem to have the same Herzogish affinity for societies odder figures and loose improvised acting.
At a few points the characters connect, but mainly we are shown their lives separately. There is the young couple of Mario and Claudia, and Mario's insane jealousy and power control over his go-go dancing girlfriend. There is a old, humpty dumpty fat man, who is goading his housekeeper to striptease for him and dress in his dead wife's clothing in honor of what would be his 50th anniversary. A teacher involved in a sadistic relationship with a gold chain wearing scuzzball. A security system salesman who uses a scapegoat (another of the films characters) when he cannot find the person damaging the cars in a neighborhood of angry clients. There is a divorced couple still living together, damaged by the loss of a child, the ex-husband and former-wife engaging in a silent battle- she sleeping with strangers and going to swingers clubs, he a ghost in his own house, frustratingly thumping a tennis ball against the walls. Finally there is a mentally disturbed?/retarded? woman named Anna who hitchhikes everywhere, spouting top ten lists (top ten grocers, sex positions,...) and asking frank personal questions ("Do you still have sex?... "Why do you have weird teeth?"... "Are you having your period?...), until the drivers are so annoyed they have to kick her out.
This is a mean, mean, mean film, and it showcases some real human ugliness. That ugliness is two fold, mainly in the characters emotional states but also in some nudity and sexual situations featuring plenty of wrinkled flesh bared by (I'll be kind and say) less than attractive people well past their prime. While I'm sure some cinema fans may say "Why on Earth would I want to watch a bleak and depressing film?" Well, I could say the same of the reverse. While it is often ugly- hey, sometimes the world is ugly. Dog Days is just as valuable a reflection of the blackest depths people can sink to as a feel good romantic film is to the cheerier side.
Dog Days actually reminded me a lot of one of my favorite photographers, Diane Arbus. She was most well known for her portraits of fringe dwellers, be they transsexuals or circus performers, to the grotesque, like the retard or Downs Syndrome afflicted, and just generally odd, but Arbus always did it with an eye of pathos and respect. In its personalities and imagewise, Dog Days is a bit like a Arbus book come to life, though Seidel is much crueller with his characters than Arbus.
The non-narrative form, the lack of any A-B-C dramatic structure, may be off-putting to some viewers, but, when executed right, I've found the observational tone of the form can be interesting. It is also rather fitting for a documentation like Seidel to choose this enviorment of semi-improvised scenes with non-professionals. And, the choice of novice/non-actors is a mixed bag (which it often is). All the actors lack the polish and sheen of film actors so they definitely look more like your everyday person, warts and all. Some, like Mario and Anna, appear effortlessly real, while others suffer with a roboticness that shows their lack of acting skills. But, if you're tired of the same old glossy Hollywood casting, this is the kind of film where the entire cast provides a perfect remedy.
The DVD: Kino
This review is for the Unrated version, which contains a brief scene of graphic sexual content.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Overall image quality is on the soft side. Due to the films sun drenched setting and featuring scenes of sweating sunbathers that will remind one of David Hockney's LA paintings, the colors are often very stark and, needless to say, bright. The presentation is passable, but it would benefit from a sharper image and deeper contrast.
Sound: Dolby 2 Channel Stereo with optional English subtitles. To give you an idea of how simple the sound for the film is, the film has no score. Chopin's "Tango" does pop up and plays during the end credits but the only other pieces of music are in a club and playing on a car stereo. So, it is a pure dialogue driven affair and even the atmospheric effects are simple and appear to be recorded naturally.
Extras: Trailer— Director Interview (2:57). Covers the basics, casting, no scripted dialogue, and his insisting on filming in hot environments.
Conclusion: For those with darker tastes, this film should satisfy. The transfer is a bit on the weak side in terms of image quality and extras, maybe making it more of a rental. But, with such "love it" or "hate it" style and material, worth a blind purchase for foreign film fans who don't mind indulging in bleaker territories.