“Dog Days,” the first feature by the notable Austrian documentarist Ulrich Seidl (“Animal Love”) is an acid portrait of contemporary Austria (and by extension, the whole middle class) as unspeakably dull, violent and stupid. The film itself, miraculously, is just the opposite: vibrantly inventive, aesthetically rigorous, sardonic and occasionally quite brilliant. It takes a stout stomach to watch Seidl’s vision of suburban hell unfold, like an “American Beauty” landscape unredeemed by the slightest spiritual impulse. Although you can interpolate emotions such as pain and loneliness to explain the characters’ grotesque behavior, these human qualities certainly aren’t depicted in the film. The result is a shocker, with scenes some viewers will find too gross to watch. Swinging from black humor to cruelty in the blink of an eye, this controversial entry — which won Venice’s No. 2 award, the Grand Jury Prize — will need critical support and kid-glove handling to reach discerning auds.
The setting is suburban Vienna, where expensive modern houses line a sluggish river; the time is the hottest part of summer, the “dog days” of the title. In their backyards and balconies, plump people sun themselves like roasting wurstel. Pic’s use of naked bodies rolling in obesity and sagging with age is a recurrent image, at once shocking and banal. The actors’ exposure is particularly unsettling as it becomes apparent that very few of them are pros.
One of the few professional actors is the hilarious Maria Hofstatter as Anna, a mentally unstrung hitchhiker who torments those who offer her a ride with non-stop embarrassing questions. She eventually becomes the victim of a burglar alarms salesman (Alfred Mrva) frustrated in his attempt to hunt down a neighborhood vandal.
Nearby, an elderly neighbor (Erich Finsches) calmly convinces his dowdy house cleaner to try on his dead wife’s clothes in front of him, cook him dinner and perform a striptease, all to celebrate what would have been his 50th wedding anniversary.
In another story, a former married couple live their completely separate lives under the same roof. The woman (Claudia Martini) is introduced sandwiched between two sweating men in a kind of brothel for orgiasts with an exit to a shopping mall. She then goes to lay flowers at a highway memorial plaque commemorating a dead child. The non-actors’ lack of expression makes the juxtaposition of comic and tragic tones even harder and more disorienting to interpret.
Apart from photos of the dead child, there are no kids in the film, only a teenage couple: Claudia (Franziska Weiss), a former beauty queen, and hunk Mario (Rene Wanko). Violently jealous, he insults and abuses her over nothing. Another major female masochist is a cultivated middle-aged woman (Christine Jirku) who gets out her sexy underwear for an evening with her younger, pimp-like lover (Victor Hennemann). He arrives with a pal, Lucky (Georg Friedrich, a professional thesp), even crasser than he is. Despite the fact that the film took three years to shoot, using only the hottest days of summer, Wolfgang Thaler’s cinematography is as spare and tidy as a manicured lawn, with the fearless authenticity of a Diane Arbus photograph. Tech work is top-notch down the line, from production design by Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin, full of windows that are always shut, to editors Andrea Wagner’s and Chirstof Schertenleib’s seamless intercutting of the stories.