Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog is billed as a ‘dark comedy’ although it is far more dark than comic. If pressed to put a number on it, I’d say that, despite the film’s poster, which shows a cute dachshund’s butt, and leads you into thinking cute dachshund thoughts, this is 98 per cent dark, and the sort of film that actually makes you want to come home, draw the curtains, and stick your head in the oven. Life’s a bitch and then you die, it says, literally. There’s every chance you’ll hate it. I’m not convinced I don’t. But this is a film that, once seen, you’ll always know you’ve seen and, in the most disquieting way, it feels as if it has somehow seen you too.
Solondz has never been in the business of affirming human decency (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Palindromes) or of making films for broad tastes. You may not share his misanthropic world view and you may not be a fan — he has many non-fans — but you do have to salute his courage, I think. This time out it’s the tale of a single dachshund (a ‘wiener-dog’ is the American way of saying ‘sausage-dog’) that is shuffled from owner to owner. Solondz does not care about the dog — in a recent interview he described his canine star as ‘unbelievably stupid’ — and neither does anybody else particularly. The dog is a device to connect the four separate households who come to own it. There’s the rich kid who’s recovering from cancer and has a vile mother (Julie Delpy) and a father (Tracy Letts) who is just as vile. (‘Heel, motherfucker!’ the father tells the wiener-dog, while the mother tells the boy bedtime stories about her childhood poodle being ‘raped’.) There’s the veterinary nurse, Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), who was also a character in Dollhouse, but was a child then, and is an adult now. (I’m assuming it’s the same Dawn. I’m assuming her surname has some significance, although I couldn’t tell you what that significance is.) She meets her first crush in a grocery store and agrees to ride across the country with him. There’s an embittered screenwriter, Dave Schmerz, played by a terrific Danny DeVito whose performance owes nothing to Twins or Throw Momma From The Train, I would venture. Schmerz is strung along by his agent and teaches at a film school that’s about to sack him for his ‘negativity’. Lastly, a mean old lady (Ellen Burstyn, also terrific) who names the dog ‘Cancer’, is tormented by imaginings of what her life could have been, and receives a visit from a granddaughter who wishes solely to tap her up for money.
There is no happiness here. And apart, perhaps, from the kid, and also a Down’s syndrome couple who feature along the way, no one is likeable, or even wants to be liked, just as the film itself doesn’t want to be liked. It does have its funny moments, particularly in Schmerz’s hopeless dealings with his agent, but even these are quite painful. (Just so we’re under no illusion, ‘schmerz’ means ‘pain’ in German.) This is not amiable cinema, but it is unamiability at its most compelling. You do get sucked into each story. You even start to care — a little. And you do want to understand. What is the significance of starting with cancer and ending with ‘Cancer?’ Is the dog’s presence commentating on the nobility and dignity of animals when compared to humans? What was that whimsical intermission sequence all about? Why do the characters progress in age with each story? Is this film looking at us and saying: wherever you are at, it’s all futile? I certainly felt it was looking at me and saying that but, after some thought, decided not to put my head in the oven. (It’s electric; I’d just get very hot.)
You don’t always have to fully comprehend a film. Sometimes, just the feel of something thrumming away under its skin can be enough, and this unquestionably thrums. I may have hated it, but equally I may have loved it.
I am a one-person divided audience. All I know for sure is that I’ve seen it, and will forever know I’ve seen it. And there is always something to be said for that.