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Dog Days (February 13/02)

It comes as no surprise that Ulrich Seidl, the director of Dog Days, comes from a documentary background. This, his first feature film, is a harrowing and unflinchingly realistic look at modern suburban life. The trouble is, though, that it lacks any kind of a narrative or a character worth rooting for.

The film unfolds over two hot and sticky days in the suburbs of Austria. We meet several characters, and in a structure similar to Robert Altman's Short Cuts, we spend some time with each individual before moving on to the next. Among the denizens: Anna, an insane young woman who spends her days hitchhiking and pestering those that pick her up with nonsensical ramblings and cruel insults; Mr. Walter, a domineering retiree whose need for control compels him to weigh sugar packets from the supermarket; a nameless teacher who uses rough sex as an outlet for her repressed anger; a divorced couple still living in the same house, unable to co-exist peacefully. There are more, but these are the most significant.

The film's slow pace is exacerbated by Seidl's refusal to introduce a significant plot device to move things along. His insistence that this play out like one of his documentary films, with the mundane reality of everyday life taking center stage, prevents the movie from ever becoming more than an occasionally shocking but quite often dull slice-of-life pic. But for a little while, it's fairly compelling stuff. These characters are wholly original and would likely never exist in a mainstream Hollywood film, and for that, Seidl should be commended. The first hour or so, where we're first meeting the characters, is pretty riveting. These are people that live among us, though fortunately, most of us go our entire lives without actually meeting any of them.

But it's the second half that ultimately kills Dog Days. The first day has passed and now it's the second day, and there's absolutely nothing new to discover in this final hour. It's more of the same (the same being nothing), and without the freshness of discovering the characters, there's not much left. And while a sequence detailing the revenge of an abusive character elevates (if only temporarily) the film from its depressing doldrums, there's really not much here worth recommending.

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