If you like dogs, and you like revolution…
If Jupiter Ascending has whetted your appetite for films in which a girl and her dog fight against tyranny and longueurs…
White God begins with a beautifully composed aerial shot of a major Budapest intersection. The streets are deserted. A tiny figure cycles up onto the flyover.
It has a familiar eeriness to it – like the deserted Waterloo Bridge near the start of 28 Days Later…, but without the graininess, the obvious digital compositing. And, shot from so far above, it is as much about the construction of urban spaces and the ways they channel us as it is about the shocking emptiness of this particular space at this moment.
The cyclist – a young girl, Lili, maybe thirteen years old – passes an abandoned car, its doors wide open, and descends into the city streets. Through intersection after intersection. Patient, determined. As if searching, cautiously and with trepidation.
Then the dogs appear.
Dozens of them.
Not from something, but toward something. With purpose.
They barely even notice her.
The film leaps back a few weeks. Lili’s mother and her partner are off to Australia for three months, so she is left with her father – once a professor, now a meat inspector at an abattoir, dishevelled and disgruntled. (He is inspired by David Lurie, the protagonist of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1991)). Lili insists on taking her dog, Hagen, with her.
The tension between estranged father and daughter soon focuses on the dog, culminating in Hagen being abandoned by a busy roadside.
The film then follows two paths.
An oh-so-arthouse mildly prurient exploration of the occasionally sexualised Lili’s pubescent struggles – with her father, with older teenagers from the orchestra in which she plays trumpet – as she tries to find Hagen and ultimately reconciles with her father.
And the story of Hagen’s life as a stray. He is befriended by a scruffy terrier, who teaches him about life on the streets, how to find food and water and shelter. How to avoid the city dogcatchers. Le barkour. But Hagen is eventually caught and sold into the world of dogfighting.
In the arena he quickly learns the horrible cost of this so-called sport.
Soon, Hagen finds himself in the dog pound, facing a lethal injection. He rebels, rather bloodily, and frees the other dogs.
He is Barktacus; they have nothing to lose but their chains.
The canine uprising has begun.
A lot of the criticism the film faced after winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year has to do with the supposed murkiness of its metaphor. This is typical of critics who don’t quite get how fantasy works, and who are incapable of finding value in the fantastic until they have translated it into the mundane. What exactly do the dogs stand for? They don’t have to stand for anything. Let them just be dogs; they will accrue meaning(s) regardless.
In complaining about the purported failure of White God‘s symbolism to symbolise some particular thing clearly, critics unwittingly clamour for an unambiguous one-to-one allegorical correspondence between manifest and latent content. Which is precisely what they would complain about if the film actually did do something so lunkheaded. That would be like valuing Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) so highly solely because it is a roman à clef of the Bolshevik revolution and the emergence of Stalinism, rather than because it is also much richer and more ambiguous than that.
Kornél Mundruczó has cited a range of sf influences – Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator – although his film probably comes closer to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). He inevitably mentions Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar (1966), and more surprisingly the films of Fassbinder and of Sirk:
For me, White God and All That Heaven Allows is the same story. Both discuss how society confines and forces people to behave.
The genius of Sirk’s film is to move between the constraints faced by a middle-aged widow and the repressiveness of an entire society. Mundruczó’s film is perhaps less successful, but the alternation between the two narrative strands creates a similar critical resonance. It is about race and about immiseration and about state power and about the tyranny of free markets; about family, gender and generation; about species; about surviving and providing and being better than the unhomely world we daily build will allow.
It is also about crossing The Incredible Journey (1963) with The Birds (1963) with Zéro de conduite (1933) or, better yet, Hue and Cry (1947), and throwing in a little Pied Piper of Hamelin, so as to rework, as its anagrammatical title suggests, Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982).
Does it work? Not quite. But that did not keep me from enjoying loads of it, mostly the doggy parts.
Some might complain about the film’s typical liberal substitution of a vague warm fuzzy feeling for the coherent revolutionary politics it is incapable of imagining. But it is a film that functions primarily on an affective level. There is so much simple joy to be found in seeing dozens of dogs, all different sizes and shapes and colours, running freely together, in fast motion and slow, that the image of revolution undergoes a quite radical transformation – it is violent and scary, but it is also comical and energetic and charming and delightful, as any worthwhile revolution must surely be.
And almost incidentally it does have some good politics in the mix. According to dog-trainer Teresa Miller, the two dogs playing Hagen don’t quite understand that they are dogs, and so simply did not get that they were supposed to be leading the pack. So although Hagen runs near the front of the pack, he never leads it. He is no Bane, which helps keep the canine rebels from becoming some clumsy reactionary representation of Occupy or Indignado or Tahrir or Syntagma, and which helps keep him unmuzzled. And the film ends in media res, not with a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) memorialisation of an already foreclosed future but, like The Birds, with the future still open … and if Hagen and his dogged comrades can just get to the horses, the cows, the sheep, the birds….
Note While leaving the cinema, I was momentarily thrown by the end credit I thought read ADDITIONAL CATS.