Audiences coming away from “Animal Love” may never look at the family pet in quite the same way again. A dark, unrelentingly seedy look at folks who sublimate their emotional and sexual needs through intimacy with their four-legged friends, this repellent but utterly compulsive sleazefest takes a hellish tour of the underside of human nature and is guaranteed not to pass unnoticed wherever provocative social documentaries are welcomed.
Austrian documaker Ulrich Seidl clearly knows about the fascination of the perverse, and knows how to manipulate it in ways that often seem uncomfortably unethical. His subjects throughout the film are generally from the lower social strata, homeless or living in depressing squalor, elderly, obese, tattooed and physically unattractive and, whenever possible, seen almost naked.
The situations these people are shown in, though undoubtedly real, are staged in such a way as to heighten their more grotesque aspects, with the calculated effect and visual style coming close to the work of photographer Diane Arbus. The material is all the more disturbing because it stopsjust short of plain old bestiality, instead exposing a more disquietingly indefinable rapport between man and beast.
Loneliness is Seidl’s prime focus here, but inspiring empathy appears to be the last thing on his mind. With a penetrating shooting style that closes in voyeuristically on its subjects’ most private moments, he films people channeling their maternal, affective, romantic and sexual instincts into relationships with their pets.
This ranges from the relatively innocent to the unequivocally sordid. An old woman recites a canine ode to her quartet of silkies; two men engage in a heated tussle with their dog; a woman whispers romantic overtures into the ear of her husky; a middle-aged man engages in phone sex while his hound lies spread-eagle on the couch beside him.
Several subjects discuss their human relationships, in both emotional and sexual terms, frequently implying that disappointment in that arena forced them to turn to their pets for affection. The film raises questions about why many of these people would open themselves to such unflattering exposure.
Even potentially wholesome moments are given an unpleasant edge by the director’s stark compositions, shot with a mainly static camera in muted, dirty colors. The rhythm of Christof Schertenleib’s editing varies consistently, often interrupting the more innocuous sequences with unseemly glimpses of folks snuggling up in bed with their dogs. The few extended segments, such as a long discussion between a brutal ex-con and his pet-loving girlfriend, tend to weigh heavily.