Rare is the movie about writer’s block that doesn’t end with the frustrated author scrapping his dead-end drafts in order to “write what you know” — i.e., the film we’ve just sat through. More uncommon still is the dog movie that doesn’t rely on its canine lead to warm hearts, jerk tears or teach its owner important lessons about his humanity. So let’s start by giving the French midlife-crisis drama “My Dog Stupid” credit for doing something different with the trite conventions of the two feel-good categories to which it belongs.
“My Dog Stupid” makes the third film through which writer-director Yvan Attal and wife Charlotte Gainsbourg have shared some version of their offscreen relationship with audiences — “My Wife Is an Actress,” “Happily Ever After” and now this — and with each, they sand away still more of the mystique that surrounds celebrity couples. Here, Attal plays Henri Mohen, the literary equivalent of a one-hit wonder, coasting on the fumes of a novel published 25 years earlier that was a success with readers and critics alike. That book paid for his house, his Porsche and his comfortable upper-middle-class existence. “Since then, I write shit,” Henri says with the kind of blunt candor that might lead a man to name his dog “Stupide.”
No prizes for those who guess that Henri will wind up writing the film, which in fact Attal adapted from one of the last works by American author John Fante, collected in his posthumous book “West of Rome” (technically, Attal adapted an adaptation by U.K. screenwriter Dean Craig). In his early days, Fante poured his heart out on paper, resulting in such raw autobiographical masterpieces as “Ask the Dust,” which went on to inspire the Beat Generation. But like Henri, he faded into obscurity, taking thankless gigs working on forgettable screenplays. Today, Fante is appreciated more in France than in the States, which explains why such a film might originate there (Claude Berri dreamed of adapting “My Dog Stupid” decades earlier).
Listening to Henri complain over the first four minutes — his withering résumé of personal disappointments and squandered dreams incongruously juxtaposed with composer Brad Mehldau’s soft-jazz score — it’s easy to imagine why his wife, Cécile (Gainsbourg), and four nearly grown kids have learned to tune him out. He’s an emasculated failure, a patriarch with no power left, beyond the ability to insult, and it’s immediately clear watching him try to deal with the monstrous creature that’s invaded their backyard that Henri doesn’t have a clue how to handle the situation.
The unwelcome beast turns out to be a stray Neapolitan mastiff, one of those cow-sized dogs with sad teddy-bear eyes and dark, droopy folds of skin that are automatically the boss by virtue of their size. The Mohens don’t adopt it so much as the other way around. Any attempt to assert dominance is met with an even greater show of force by the dog, who tries to mount whomever he comes in contact with. Instead of being appalled, Henri is impressed by Stupide’s personality, using the animal’s stubbornness as motivation to double down on the more abrasive aspects of his own nature.
The rest of the family is less enthused. Once Stupide takes up residence, Henri’s kids move out one by one — which suits him just fine and shifts the focus to the relationship between the writer and his wife, who gave up her own literary career for the sake of a marriage that’s lost its spark. That’s where the film hits its stride, burrowing into the aspect of long-term relationships that others avoid: the ambivalence that sets in after 25 years, the ennui, the way neither party makes the slightest attempt to seduce the other, all offset by the tiny gestures and nonverbal cues that suggest, somewhat counterintuitively, how the comfort they feel around one another is a kind of romance unto itself.
Movies about couples so often focus on the moment the two parties fall in love, or else much later, when tragedy or infidelity splits them apart. Here’s an exception that looks in on a married couple when things have grown familiar, and finds truth there. Attal has a way of portraying his wife that doesn’t attempt to flatter her ego in the slightest: Instead, he films her looking stressed or exasperated, often without makeup, dressed in clothes she’d never dare wear out of the house. There’s no glamour in Gainsbourg’s performance; in its place we find honesty, seeing her as only a husband could, and it’s a revelation to discover the actor’s essence in so casual a performance.
But there remain the obligations of the genre: Henri must realize that he’s been taking his situation for granted, and somehow channel that into literature. It’s a little too easy to open a movie with a snatch of voiceover that establishes its protagonist as a genius. Of his book, he says, “It broke all sales records and won every literary prize.”
This movie’s no masterpiece, but it’s significant in that it makes no attempt at being pretentious. Henri’s situation with his dog is absurd, and he comes off as a buffoon. Yet it takes a special kind of writer to acknowledge that — and the same goes for any director who identifies with it enough to play the role himself. “My Dog Stupid” manages to have it both ways: Henri channels his experience into literature, but the movie doesn’t finish there. He can write one ending, the honest one, while the movie lingers a couple scenes longer, so that Attal can give audiences what he thinks they want.