A smattering of dog shit on the pavement. Debussy's "Clair de Lune" plays out its dreamlike, soothing melody. The camera pans along the road, revealing more excrement. The family dog, Weiner-Dog, has done this, as revealed in the previous scene. More patches – fruity, some smaller dribbles, some astonishingly large piles. This goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time. This was funny initially, you think, waiting for the end. But soon you'll be hypnotised by the flow of diarrhoea, rolling onward like a dreamshow baby projector, as the song builds to a climax.
What is your life – sat here watching this for entertainment? Perhaps this activity is no more odd or purposeless than anything else in your modern existence, whether that's doing your hot yoga or eating your nice food or doing well in your creative career. None of these quaint things you hold dear will stave off your inevitable demise, so we may as well be watching dog shit in the cinema. That's the message you can take from Todd Solondz' latest film, Wiener-Dog.
The Welcome to the Dollhouse director has honed his brand of dark, uneasy black humour here. It's more pointed, it's serious and funnier. He even brings back his cult character, the ultimate awkward dork Dawn Weiner – whom he killed off in Palindromes but you know, minor details. The premise is that we follow the wiener-dog – or dachshund – through his many owners, whom he keeps losing and gaining along the course of the film. It's an obvious riff on Robert Bresson's classic film Au Hasard Balthazar but the donkey is now a dog. Every new owner is dealing with their own mini existential crises, but always Wiener-Dog is there, cool, calm, collected and empty, cruising through life because what is the point in being anything but passive when life will not ultimately please you.
The first part of the story deals with a wealthy modern family living an affluent suburban life. The boy has been cured of cancer and so the dog is a gift. But in a satirical moment, the kid gives Wiener-Dog some of his granola bar while the parents are at yoga, leading to mindblowing explosive diarrhoea which never ends. "But I thought granola is good for you," the kid cries, wiping endless piles of shit with paper towels. "No, granola is shit," the mum, played by Julie Delpy, screams back. This is the first laugh at the expense of a "meaningful" lifestyle but not the last. In one of the film's depressingly funny moralising scenes, mother and son are in the car on the way back from getting Wiener-Dog put down and Delpy tries to explain why it's fine: everyone will die eventually and life is suffering. "So dead is a... good thing?" concludes the kid. Good, bad, painful; it's an end to all this ridiculousness and sets up what's to follow pretty succinctly.
Thankfully, Wiener-Dog survives to see a 20-something-year-old Dawn Weiner, played by Greta Gerwig, as a new owner. Together Weiner and a former classmate go to tell his brother, who has Down syndrome, that their dad has died of alcoholism. There's a surreal emptiness to all their lives but, for once, the prospect of hope in a romantic relationship – albeit characteristically flawed and strange.
If you're neurotic, you'll notice a subtle break in the film between the first and second half. The first two younger owners have hope or at least time on their side, while the two oldies who take up the latter half of the film are simply hurtling towards death. When the dog is passed on to Danny DeVito's Dave Schmerz, things get darker. He's a failing filmmaker who teaches at university to pay his way – the latter part of that equation mirroring Solondz's life – and it's genuinely upsetting. His methods are pathetic, his agent is avoiding him, he's single and his doctor tells him he's a ticking time bomb.
This reaches a climax in its fourth part with the character closest to death. Ellen Burstyn plays Nana, the foul-mouthed, bitter old grandmother who is visited by her drug-addled granddaughter, Zosia Mamet, for the first time in years because she wants money. There is no time for Nana – the end is nigh. In the best Solondz imagining for years, Nana sees her former young selves lining up to tell her what her life could have looked like if she'd lived better, fuller. If she'd laughed more, if she'd married her first love, if she'd tipped waitresses more. It's darkly comic and very true.
Lots of people will dislike this movie: it's an unsettling collection of short films which doesn't try to be Hollywood-profound, despite dealing with death and hopelessness. But it is profound, simply through the humour of being blunt without trying to move you. Those who call this relentlessly pessimistic or misanthropic would be missing the point. It's horribly real.
There is a slither of hope in the ending: without ruining it, Wiener-Dog kind of lives forever. There is a mortality, of sorts. No one can beat death – but maybe beating it is cruising along passively, taking what comes and explosively shitting where you may.
Wiener-Dog is out in the UK on 12th August.
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