dog days (hundstage)2002
director: ulrich seidl
maria hofstatter, erich finsches, victor rathbone

. There was once a cliché used to dismiss European films: "Ugly people doing terrible things to each other, with subtitles." Pretty trifles like Amelie had pretty much buried that old trope, but a film like Ulrich  Seidl’s Dog Days threatens to bring it back from the grave.

Set in a Viennese suburb in the humid torpor of late summer, the film follows a group of troubled citizens, including a mad young woman who spends her days accosting people in parking lots, a divorced couple who still live together in their tomb-like house, and a paranoid old control freak who carefully weighs his groceries, bitterly returning everything that doesn’t tally. Amidst the endless strip malls and subdevelopments, they victimize each other beneath the baking sun, pushing and being pushed to an inevitable breaking point. 

It’s a dark kind of filmmaking that isn’t unprecedented here, and if you’re a fan of Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbours) or Todd Solondz (Happiness and Storytelling), you might be at least partially prepared for a film as unforgiving as Dog Days.

Seidl, a respected documentary filmmaker, uses rough, handheld camerawork and a mix of professional and first-time actors to give the whole thing a dreadful, queasy immediacy. In the case of two, obviously parallel couples – a young beauty queen and her abusive boyfriend, and a dignified older woman and her sleazy, pimp-like lover – it seems that the film is falling into a hoary but venerable rule of "feel-bad movie" chararcterization: all men are brutes and all women are dishrags. 

Subtly, though, the film shifts just as almost every storyline turns really ugly, and in the most utterly hopeless situations that Seidl has so clinically tended, a ray of hope – bleak hope, but hope nonetheless – shines through. In the midst of all this despair, these glimpses of bruised humanity seem more jarring than the brutality that precedes them.