It’s getting hot in hier: An abject—and pointedly Austrian—contribution to the heat-wave mini-genre, Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days observes the sunstroked dysfunctions in a Viennese suburb with a cold mortician’s eye. Seidl is best known as a merciless documentarian of obsessive behavior (scarily devoted pet owners in Animal Love, prayerful Catholics in the new Jesus, You Know), and this startling debut fiction feature goes to great, hectoring lengths to prove its final line: “People are so cruel”—a judgment from which the filmmaker himself is presumably not exempt.
The ultimate anti-summer movie, Dog Days darts among half a dozen storylines, all set within a shadeless expanse of uniform tract houses and apartment buildings (and the equally undifferentiated highways and strip malls in the vicinity). There’s no respite from the swelter, and Seidl doesn’t stint on displays of pale, sagging, sweaty flesh; unflattering beached-whale shots function almost as shock inserts. Everyone is either bully, victim, or both. An estranged couple, grieving their only child, lead ostentatiously separate lives under the same roof—she’s introduced mid-threesome at an orgy and is later shown enjoying a romantic alfresco dinner at home with her masseur while her enraged husband smacks tennis balls against the wall of their empty swimming pool. A crabby widower badgers his housekeeper into performing a striptease to commemorate what would have been his 50th wedding anniversary. A go-go dancer withstands the violent envy of a sleazebag boyfriend. A middle-aged schoolteacher withstands the violent humiliations of a sleazebag boyfriend. A possibly retarded girl spends her days hitching rides, showering drivers with casual insults, ad jingles, and Top 10 lists; she crosses paths several times—fatefully, in the end—with a security alarm salesman who’s trying in vain to catch a car vandal.
Shot over three summers, with an improvised script and a largely non-pro cast (Victor Hennemann, the older pig boyfriend, a bronzed, heavy-metal-hair specimen in medallions and leather pants, is a pornographer), Dog Days adheres dogmatically to the school of sado-miserablism that Seidl’s compatriots Michael Haneke and Jessica Hausner have turned into something of a national industry (non-Austrian adherents abound too, from Gaspar Noé to Harmony Korine). It’s the sort of movie in which a beloved pet is guaranteed not to make it to the end credits and a romantic evening is liable to devolve into a “group vomiting session.” Seidl’s ultra-dry humor and visual poise, distinguished by crisp, frontal compositions, contrast starkly with the uninhibited, quasi-Cassavetes meltdowns on view (there’s plenty of drunken singing throughout), and he orchestrates punitive scenarios with similarly businesslike aplomb. The biggest asshole is eventually sodomized with a candle and made to perform the Austrian national anthem: “Native home of many great sons, a people with a taste for great beauty.” Absurd and astonishing, it’s the film’s silliest and most potent expression of anger, a thunderous fart in the general direction of Jörg Haider.