In ‘My Dog Stupid,’ a French Writer Goes Barking Mad

Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in an adaptation of John Fante’s 'West of Rome.'

The montage of images underneath Henri’s (Yvan Attal) introductory voiceover are as enviable as they are aspirational. He drives his white Porsche through the country rain only to arrive at a modern house that’s straight out of Architectural Digest (French Edition). It’s idyllically situated, Henri says, halfway between the mountains and the sea. He lives there with his wife Cécile (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their four children. But in his monologue, he tells the audience that his writing career and his domestic life have soured.

As he’s nearing the driveway, the Porsche breaks down in front of the neighbor’s aggressive doberman, the same one that killed his own dog six months earlier. Cécile greets him in the pouring rain abruptly and with a sense of urgency. Something’s outside in their backyard. Henri follows her as the camera closes in on a Neapolitan mastiff sheltering under a shrub. This breed of dog, in size, affect and appearance, suggests a small, mythical monster. Instead of being shooed away by their flapping hands, he trots past the couple through their sliding glass door.

My Dog Stupid closes out a trilogy of domestic fables written and directed by Attal, and co-starring Gainsbourg, his real-life partner. The first two films in the series, My Wife is an Actress (2001) and Happily Ever After (2004), were cozier portraits of newlyweds who move on to parenting and then the condonable Gallic sin of infidelity. But the rough edges in Attal’s films merely scrape the surface of his characters’ appealing skins. He attempts to undercut the pretty scenes of bourgeois privilege by examining the daily frictions and incivilities of married life. Want manifests itself in physical desire — never for cash, rent, or a square meal.

With the onset of middle age, Attal, in this new film, replaces desire with ennui and depression. Henri’s professional achievements are behind him. He and Cécile are lingering in the doldrums and veering toward estrangement. She misses living in Paris and drinks too much to dull the emptiness of their suburban lives. It’s visually surprising when we see the children Henri’s complained about. They’re young adults, in their late teens and early 20s, and still living at home. Henri blames them for his writer’s block, for his lack of inspiration, and proceeds to wish them all away.

The mastiff, named “Stupid” by one of the ungrateful sons, serves a different purpose than the St. Bernard of the famed Beethoven movies. Charles Grodin’s sense of order descends into unmanageable chaos each time Beethoven muddies up a room. Stupid isn’t Henri’s antagonist. He’s a physical manifestation of his lost vigor. His animal instincts have been tamed and tamped down by the constant needs and demands of his wife and children.

To make this malaise comedic, Attal comes up with a recurring wisecrack that’s easily the worst part of My Dog Stupid. Stupid humps a variety of male characters and is then called a “gay” dog (in French, the characters use the slang term “pédé,” which translates to a more benign form of “faggot”). In the midst of all this heterosexuality — regardless of how unhappy this particular family is — the ugly gut punch of homophobia is reduced to a tired bestiality joke. With each humped leg, Attal hammers this very old message home: Straight men are uncomfortable with gay male sexuality. Writing one of Henri’s sons as a gay character would have been an easy corrective or counterbalance to the image of a “faggot” dog getting horny.  

Attal, however, does maintain a singular mood to reflect Henri’s discontent. Rather than classical music or pop, the soundtrack is a mix of instrumental jazz and Brad Mehldau’s piano renditions of songs by bands like Radiohead and The Beatles. To signal middle age, the rock is removed for a soothing roll. Images of the seaside and countryside are framed to match Henri’s emotions, with varying degrees of flatness, contentment or dread. As a filmmaker, Attal composes unremarkable shots to better serve the actors. Chief among his subjects is Gainsbourg. More than a muse, she remains the most plausible character in every one of the couple’s movies. She may not be writing or directing them, but without her his stories would be missing a fixed, reliable center.

With this trilogy, the fictional versions of Attal and Gainsbourg’s domestic life are on display to persuade viewers that these movie stars face the same difficulties we do. Henri is self-involved and petty, Cécile is numbed out and stalled, and their children are universally spoiled. Henri’s editor tells him that these ordinary emotions are what he should be writing about to get at “the truth.” Obviously, I don’t know them personally but I doubt that a glimpse into their actual lives would reveal this much charming melodrama. It’s easy to imagine that offscreen they’re nicer to each other and their three kids. And if a giant dog walks into their living room someday soon, I assume it wouldn’t be the catalyst that tests the solidity of their long-term relationship.

My Dog Stupid opens Friday, August 14 at the Roxie Cinema’s virtual theater.

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