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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Fur flies in wrenching 'The Fox' and...

Screen Grabs: Fur flies in wrenching ‘The Fox’ and bizarre ‘Dogman’

Cuddly canines comfort in Franz Streitberger’s World War II drama and kill in Luc Besson's new thriller.

As someone who does a lot of dog volunteering, it’s easy to understand the emotional connection and satisfaction that interacting with furry critters provides. At the same time, it can be wearying to deal with those individuals (a minority among professional dogwalkers, shelter personnel, etc.) who are clearly in it as a shield from/justification for their own misanthropy. People frequently brag about liking animals better than humans—you will very frequently find that the most reactionary MAGA-ite, full of venom against fellow homo sapiens, has umpteen cute pet photos on their social media—but to me that’s always a sad self-reveal. Dogs, cats etc. are easy; they’re grateful, adoring, give and give while demanding so little. You don’t merit a prize for rejecting the extra work it takes to negotiate more complicated relationships within your own species, no matter what negative past experiences seem to merit that move.

Nonetheless, there is an inherent poignancy in the bond between four-legged creature and damaged person that has often made for great drama. Though very big on felines as a child (at least until allergies kicked in), I was completely taken with the moody Black Stallion books, and stunned by an unusually downbeat, poetical British children’s film, now little-remembered: 1969’s Run Wild, Run Free, with Oliver!’s Mark Lester as a severely withdrawn boy drawn to a feral pony on the moors. Two new movies aimed at more adult audiences similarly center on protagonists most comfortable in the company of canines—though different sorts, in very different stories, to wildly disparate cinematic results.

The real discovery among them has, lamentably, bypassed US theatrical distribution entirely for streaming (it’s just been released to Amazon and AppleTV), and even that has taken some time—it premiered in Europe late 2022. But The Fox was worth the wait. Loosely based on Austrian director Franz Streitberger’s late great-grandfather (who is heard in a brief audio recording at the end), it is an uncommonly moving low-key portrait of poverty, war, introversion and improbable bonding.

It opens almost exactly a century ago in Pinzgau, an alpine district that looks like Heidi country. But here there is no joy in the “natural life,” only grim silences, toil and hunger. Franz (played as a child by Maximilian Reinwald) is part of a huge, impoverished brood packed into one mountain hut. When he faints while toting water one day, his parents make a hard decision: They indenture him as a farmhand to a wealthier resident downhill, hoping he’ll at least survive to adulthood if better-fed than they can manage. Despite the harshness of their life, however, it’s still excruciating for a seven-year-old to be separated whole from his family.

A decade later, Franz (now played by Simon Morze) is now of age, and newly freed from his servitude. Landing in Salzberg, he finds charity soup kitchens overrun—it’s still the Great Depression, even here. For lack of other options, he joins the Army, again trading liberty for the promise of three square meals a day. As the year is 1937, you know where this is heading: Austria’s military will soon be absorbed into Germany’s, though Franz himself has no patriotic or political ideology. A perfect obedient soldier in many ways, he’s an awkward fit in others, as his history to date has instilled almost no social instincts; he remains a tongue-tied outsider amongst fellow grunts’ easy camaraderie. When fellow recruit Dillinger (Marko Kerezovic) begs a little conversation to pass the time on a boring watch shift, we realize the extent of Franz’s communicative paralysis: He might more happily tear a kidney out than cough up a little small talk.

Soon the narrative jumps forward to 1940. Germany has invaded Poland, and Franz’s unit of “alpine assholes” is part of the Axis forces invading France, though for the time being they’re stationed well away from the front lines. Most relaxed when alone in the surrounding forest, one day he stumbles upon a wounded fox cub, with no parent in sight. This is the start of a mutual dependency that of course must be kept secret—though he lets the animal scurry around freely at times (it always comes back to him), at others he must hide it in a duffel bag, hoping it won’t make attention-drawing noise.

It’s an ongoing dodge that in outline looks as ludicrous as Roberto Benigni miraculously managing to keep his child hidden (also from Nazis, incidentally) in Life Is Beautiful’s concentration camp. But somehow this apparently really did happen to Streitberger’s relative, and in any case his descendent’s direction is far more tactful in its sentimentality than that shameless prior film. Indeed, The Fox has the kind of restraint—particularly in Morze’s quietly wrenching performance—that can just about destroy you when the dramatic chips are finally called in. Like the recent Danish Promised Land, it earns the tears you’ll be hard-pressed to resist towards its close.

Which is all the more impressive for a war film with so little “action,” or even plot. Franz has the occasional significant interchange with another person (notably Adriane Gradziel as a young French woman), or interlude of serious peril. But his WW2, at least the part we see, is sufficiently removed from battles and battalions that he can establish a primary if fragile connection with a de facto pet. By the way, doing a little research afterward, I discovered two things: Foxes are sometimes kept as pets (certain types are legal as such in 15 states), and they can indeed make a purring noise as depicted onscreen, along with other sounds—belying the mystery posed by that immortal novelty song, “What Does the Fox Say?”

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Dogman, which like some other Luc Besson joints (such as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) seems to have been Frankenstein’ed together from the parts of numerous other movies—ones inclined to reject the transplant. It’s like Joker meets Willard via The Amazing Dobermans, with a dose of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Which makes for a mongrel that isn’t dull, though it also isn’t nearly as much fun as that hybrid may sound.

Caleb Landry Jones plays Douglas Munrow, sensitive younger child in a nightmare household his mother flees, leaving him in the clutches of a viciously abusive father and perversely Bible-quoting tattletale brother. For the sin of empathy, they throw him at an early age into a kennel (dad stages dogfights for gamblers). There, over the next several years, he duly learns that Man’s Best Friend is much nicer than these shitty men. The latter seem to have stepped out of some Appalachian hillbilly gothic circa Tobacco Road—though incongruously, Doug’s only reading material is mom’s secret stash of 1950s glamour magazines. It’s even more incongruous when he escapes, and we realize that the world outside is basically Now, albeit minus any specific geographic locale.

Left partly paralyzed by dad’s violence, Doug remains an outsider in an orphanage, then as a young man running a dog shelter. Once the city sells that site to developers, he creates a new habitat for himself and his strays in a derelict building, its secretive nature extending to shady side rackets in protection and theft—both executed by canines he claims “understand absolutely everything I tell them,” to a preposterous degree. (Barry Lyndon’s Marisa Berenson gets a single scene as one wealthy victim of their stealth jewelry-pilfering.)

All this is about as credible as Hundreds of Beavers. Yet Dogman is fundamentally humorless, an absurd fantasy that declines to acknowledge being either absurd or a fantasy. Doug may be mostly wheelchair-bound, yet he practically has superpowers, because why not. Presumably thanks to those glamour mags, he does drag (eventually lip-synching in a club to inexplicable wild applause as Piaf, Dietrich, and Monroe). Yet the only time he shows any romantic interest in anyone, it’s the safely heterosexual kind, with Grace Palma as an aspiring actress. He says things like “I know all of Shakespeare by heart,” and we’re meant to go “wow I’ll bet he does” rather than “pffft.”

He directs his many mutts (who disappointingly don’t seem to interest Besson all that much) to maul so many bad guys to death we lose count… just off-screen, though, so our hero(ine) can retain an Amelie-like edge of the plucky, irrepressible prankster. All this is awkwardly framed as flashbacks unfolding in testimony to a court-appointed psychiatrist (Jojo T. Gibbs) while Doug is in police custody… though not for long, we can be sure.

For about 40 years, Luc Besson as director, writer and producer has led France’s charge towards more Hollywoodish mainstream entertainment—flashy, slick, action-driven films like The Fifth ElementLa Femme Nikita, and Lucy, the more expensive ones done in English to better access an international audience. Idiosyncratic by US standards, they’re nonetheless very mainstream mall-flicks by any other. When he’s off the mark, the disconnect between conception and execution can be downright bizarre. This particular hot mess might’ve worked if played out in the fable-like mode of Benjamin ButtonForrest Gump, or even Amelie itself. But as attracted as Besson is to the outre, he is also too often bewilderingly literal-minded about it.

So Dogman is somehow a whopper that lacks any saving irony or magic, though its sheer oddity will no doubt win some defenders. It represents the extreme of a Besson project in which the oil of his weird writing ideas meets the water of his very middle-of-the-road, commercial filmmaking. The combination is mostly interesting for its absolute refusal to gel. It opens in limited theaters this Fri/29.

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