[…] «Love Dog» is a film that plays like an Agnes Obel record: intimate and yet oddly removed, like a silent dance or a ritual performed in a language you do not speak.
[…] Private pain remains inscrutable: what can be gleamed however is a shared sense of loss. There’s a sense of collective vulnerability here, which has less to do with the narrative premises and more to do with the film as a cultural artefact.
Love Dog is a film that plays like an Agnes Obel record: intimate and yet oddly removed, like a silent dance or a ritual performed in a language you do not speak.
This mixture of intimacy and distance takes on different facets, reverberating across the production, the narrative and the experience of those who watch. From each new angle, albeit through different personas, the same combination of closeness and distance resurfaces: the film-makers, Bianca Lucas and Jozefina Gocman, are two artists working with a non-professional actor (John Dicks), but also two friends unexpectedly stuck in a foreign land. John plays a character – also named John – who finds refuge in an empty house. We the viewers are strangers peering through the keyhole of his daily routine. Finally, encompassing it all, grief.
Now, grief is a slippery theme. Attempts to reach into that peculiar foreignness of the soul inevitably fail to grasp it, not just because by definition a void cannot be grasped but also because, at its core, grief is a split, a coming undone. Part of what’s coming undone is language itself, the glue that lets us stick to our image of ourselves, to our sense of what the world is and where we fit in it.
Let’s take a step back though. At the height of the pandemic a recently heartbroken Bianca Lucas found herself forcibly confined by the lock-down in Mississippi, in a riverside town famed for its pre-Civil War architecture. She had planned to gather material for a documentary. She had a camera. In an interview on cineuropa she recounts feeling the need to confront the fears brought on by the unexpected confinement, the isolation, her own grief, and give them a form. That’s how Love Dog came into being. As I imagine those weeks of shooting, working without a script and without knowing what the world would look like at the other end, I’m reminded of that line from an Okkervil River song: «What gives this mess some grace, unless it’s fiction?»
The problem of making a film out of grief, out of absence and isolation, is that cinema is itself a language, a collective instrument of meaning-making. It’s a fiction: a by-product of the same glue that suddenly fails when grief severs our connection to the world. In this sense then approaching the subject from a place of both distance and intimacy is more a necessity than a stylistic choice, and even so, there is a risk of merely observing a foreign body, like peering into a fish bowl.
The reason why Lucas’ film succeeds is that her film, ostensibly a character study of an individual (John) mourning and slowly recovering from a recent loss, latches onto something broader. Private pain remains inscrutable: what can be gleamed however is a shared sense of loss. There’s a sense of collective vulnerability here, which has less to do with the narrative premises and more to do with the film as a cultural artefact. By using cinema to translate as best she could the upset and the loss that she and her companions experienced, Lucas stumbled upon the primary function of all culture (as Juri Lotman once put it): to build meaning in the face of fear.
To be clear, I am not trying to detract anything from Lucas’ craft. The building blocks she uses to put Love Dog together are aptly chosen, a skilled blend of evocative and concrete. A man drives back to the place where he was born, having been away a long time. The place is down South in Mississippi and the man had been away working on an oil rig. Now he returns, but not to his own house: he is to house-sit an empty mansion by the river. He mourns the suicide of his girlfriend. As he drives in the semi-constant rain he listens to a radio host reading letters from his listeners: voices from a nation adrift, caught in fear, which the radio host promises to turn into song. But the film always cuts away. We never get to hear the songs.
Lucas is mobilising recognisable mythic tropes here but the execution is delicate enough to allow Love Dog to rest on those foundations without crossing into the terrain of clichés. Instead, these powerful metaphors hum quietly in the background. Here is a man driving home to an empty house, recovering from a loss: one finds an echo of the great American jeremiad, the yearning for a renewed communal bond. Not by chance, for we are in the South: ancient ghosts of collective guilt linger through the setting and lend historical substance to the shared sense of crisis.
However, the film remains anchored to a semi-documentary gaze that pre-empts any rhetorical excess. The result is a tonal blend of symbolic and mundane, which emerges particularly in the use of space. The emptiness of the mansion that John looks after, for example, is clearly symbolic and yet the house itself is not abstract; it has, as I mentioned, a recognisable architectural identity, not to mention cupboards full of toilet paper and a neon pink net draped awkwardly over the bed, to keep mosquitoes out.
Other elements, potentially heavy-handed, are buried discreetly out of sight. For instance, the fact that John was working on an oil rig is only referred to in passing a couple of times (oil has long been a key signifier in the American mono-myth: betrayal of the land, loss of innocence, the failed promises of the American Dream, etc. Flashes of There Will Be Blood crossed my mind as I was watching).
Gocman’ camerawork is observational, with more than a smidge of the ethnographic. Mid-to-close up shots, often framing the human figure from side angles, but then, as John deals with his wound, intimate memories burst through the fabric of the diegesis like hallucinations, touches of magical realism amongst details of mundane life. It is those finely balanced stylistic choices that redeem Love Dog from the pratfalls of miserabilist voyeurism. What captivates me even more than her obvious film-making instincts is Lucas’ position as an outsider. A position (a mode of being) which I suspect she has not only experienced during the lock-down. She grew up in Poland but is of Australian descent. She now lives in Paris. Like her, I grew up in a place that was not the land of my parents. Like her, I also found myself in the position of having to make work observing a culture that is not my own. Never fully in, not wanting to be left out.
Perhaps I’m projecting a little. But I don’t think so. In fact, I think that this perspective is what allows her gaze to align with the zeitgeist of a nation which multiple crises have left atomised and struggling to recognise itself. That is, of course, a sad turn of fate yet, ultimately, it is also what allows film-makers like Lucas to turn away from the impossible quest of depicting grief and prod timidly but hopefully at the possibility of human connection.
Throughout the film John reaches out to friends and strangers, initially recoiling under the weight of his anger and resentment but ultimately finding empathy and care, and he’s not alone. From a teenage girl who wants to be on The Voice, who ends up singing for John in what is probably the most memorable sequence of the film, to a carousel of strangers desperately but somehow endearingly spending their evenings on Chat Roulette, Love Dog is constellated with humanity awkwardly trying to make contact with others.
Mythic undertones and the kindness of strangers: what appears on the surface as a study of character turns into a quiet, understated celebration of hope and community. This does not prevent the film from over-playing its hand from time to time, indeed some scenes towards the end are a tad over-scripted and the overarching metaphor of the three-legged dog (a legacy of his lost girlfriend John learns to accept and care for) never quite works.
But this was a first feature, made out of grief in quasi-impossible conditions. Despite its shortcomings, it remains a formidable achievement. Besides, even a little hope goes a long way.
What to do when the world does not make sense anymore? Current global developments are certainly no help in providing hope but the loss can be more immediate: the death of meaning through the death of a loved one. Bianca Lucas’ beautifully melancholic Love Dog examines the loss and eventual rediscovery of meaning not only through its protagonist John, whose girlfriend has just died under circumstances the film does not disclose, but also through its cinematic form: the editing and framing that mirror the protagonist’s aimlessness while at the same time, barely noticeable on the fringes, allowing for a certain potential for hope. Said hope may come in different forms, for example random encounters with strangers who provide comfort through their kinship in suffering, as well as through the revelation that the most direct way to find one’s ability to care about anything again comes through the literal act of caring for something that has already been given up as lost. In this case, an abandoned three-legged dog.
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Love Dog | Film | Bianca Lucas | PL-MEX-USA 84’ | Locarno Film Festival 2022
First published: September 01, 2022