This quasi-documentary from Austria lives up to its underground reputation. The quote on the cover is from Werner Herzog: "Never have I looked so directly into hell." The hell referred to is not some exterior evil or political entity, but merely the lives of despair and disaffection shared by millions of urban dwellers on the fringes of society. Writer-director Ulrich Seidl concentrates on a dozen or so of the most depressing individuals you'd ever want to see; there isn't one with an ounce of positive alignment to the modern world.
The film is called Animal Love because all of these people live and express themselves through their pets. It is not a pretty picture. Approaching his subject obliquely, Seidel lets us think we're going to see the usual fairy tale about how the lives of shut-ins and lonely hearts are brightened by the presence of a furry animal with which to share their days. Only a few minutes go by before his misanthropy reveals itself: Our closest point of reference to Animal Love are the frequent news stories about hermits discovered living in filthy houses with dozens of cats or dogs. Emotionally stunted and socially crippled, these people seem to be devolving into a new, subhuman species.
Animal Love isn't a normal documentary in that everything we see has been carefully framed and shot. Some of it may even be rehearsed but it makes little difference, as it is obvious that the docu subjects are exactly as they appear. They sit on their flower-patterned sofas and stare: Older women, middle-aged women, married couples, same-sex couples. The film soon becomes a variation on a freak show. The main "characters" talk to each other or the camera or to their pets. The disc text copy aptly compares Seidl's visuals to Diane Arbus photographs. They have a similar posed, in-your-face quality. Robert Crumb could easily use these people as inspiration for his Zap comix.
The subject is not the animals but their misaligned owners. Instead of brightening their lives, the pets just seem to bring out the human ugliness in greater detail. All of them live in squalid, distressed circumstances - in ratty apartments and rooms that look like leftover janitorial closets. Two life-partner males incessantly criticize the "system" that has forced them into the margins of society. Another pair seems to be squatting in a ruin, and wander out to do illegal begging in public places. One uses a rabbit as a scam. He's ignored until he asks for money for the bunny, and then various passersby take notice and donate.
There's a horrid couple that argues over sordid issues - his drunkenness, her cowardice. An older woman talks constantly of the man who left her. She speaks to her new pet as a substitute for the missing human partner, giving her wretched situation a touch of madness - "If he comes back, we won't let him in, will we?" After only a couple of examples we realize that the relationships between these misshapen, unwanted, abandoned people and their pets are not at all healthy. One sex-obsessed couple talk about finding another like-minded pair to make a foursome, while lying in their underwear among their animals on the dirty floor.
The film presents a collection of cruelly maladjusted humans, some of them barely connected to other people and living in almost complete social isolation. The animals they live with are their only contact with 'human' kindness, and that irony makes them seem sicker than ever. None of the animals seems to be actually molested, except for one painful episode with a fairly attractive woman. She ignores various phone messages from crudely amorous men and then indulges in some unpleasantly erotic play with her dog on the floor. Hell on Earth is to be found in horrid human relationships.
Animal Love isn't for the average viewer, and probably not for a lot of exceptional viewers either. There's a graphic sex scene or two that come off as if someone set up a camera in a real asylum; as I said above, director Seidl's camera is too careful an observer for this to play like cinema verité. Seidl knows his subjects are so warped, it doesn't matter if a camera is recording them or not. It's definitely a study piece for students of the documentary film.
Images's release of The KimStim Collection's disc of Animal Love is an okay flat transfer of the movie, matted to 1:66. Production values are good and the audio recording fine; the German dialogue is translated in subs burned into the print. The non-exploitative packaging says that the film is for mature viewers only but gives few hints of the docu's dark content. I pity the DVD buyer who picks up this disc by mistake, thinking it celebrates a positive look at people and their pets.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Animal Love rates: