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Life’s a Bitch (Chiennes de Ville)

Absurd Belgian comedy builds its own mini universe full of twisted charm, reminding viewers that life’s a bitch (whether you’re walking on two legs or four) - from the Rebels With a Cause Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Occasionally, a film comes along that’s a riotous good time. Belgian director, Xavier Seron’s third feature, Life’s a Bitch is just that. This review comes with the warning to make the most of the first viewing of this absurd and nonsensical comedy. It’s difficult to anticipate the fun ride Seron will take you on, as he unleashes his creative and quirky imagination, that afterwards, might just leave you thinking, ‘What the fuck!’

Told across three chapters, each is named after the dogs that are an object of torment, grief and love for the film’s cast of protagonists.

When Tom’s neighbour passes away, Cecile, who he has a fondness for, asks him to look after Mezcal, the dead man’s Chihuahua. He can’t refuse and soon he suspects the supposedly innocent looking dog may have pushed its owner to suicide, and Mezcal is eyeing him up next. Then there’s the famous actress and model Greta, whose assistant and dog, Sophie, are run over by a bus. When she sees Charlotte at the dry cleaners, she sees a striking resemblance to her beloved canine, and hires her to be her assistant, or rather to replace Sophie. And finally, Franck and shoplifter Lola fall in love. However, her dislike of dogs stands in their way of happily ever after. What will Franck do with his beloved Perdita, who can predict the future?

It all begins with a dark abrasiveness that recalls the films of Todd Solondz, when Tom, who is minding his own business, is head butted by a woman. He’s accused of having jerked off on someone’s leg, but the woman’s friend, Lola, is unsure it’s the same guy – it’s actually not. From there, Cecile’s comedic wordplay about how women like scars and her father’s thoughts on masturbation build the first chapter’s twisted charm. Seron effectively infers, playing around with his audience’s imagination and expectations of what could happen. He tempers and maintains control over the absurdity, so it doesn’t run away from him.

The humour of the first chapter is rip roaringly funny. It bodes well for the film but is also cause for concern because to sustain this level of comedic intensity for 90 minutes is impractical. Aware of these limitations, Seron changes tone in each chapter. The second retains the absurdity, but leans into satire, poking fun at privileged and entitled celebrities, before switching to a romantic tale for the third and final segment.

The arc from Mezcal’s horror to Perdita’s romance, bridged by Sophie’s satire, helps the mini-anthology to continually rediscover, or reimagine itself. Anthologies are often tripped up by the lack of consistency, but Life’s a Bitch averts this pitfall. This consistency comes from Seron’s awareness of tone and pacing, reenergising the comedy through drama and satire. He wisely refrains from sacrificing the film’s inherent absurdity, carrying it over into the satire of people as pets and objects in Sophie, and the silly use of Ave Maria for romantic montages in Perdita. Alternating its presentation gives each story its own identity, and yet, the way he casually connects the three stories together, turns Life’s a Bitch into its own mini universe.

It’s true that the film doesn’t ask its audience to think, but to go along for the ride. There are, however, some interesting kinks, specifically in a noticeable theme and the juxtaposition of cynicism and compassion.

Life’s a Bitch deals with loneliness and isolation. Tom desires female companionship, and despite his generosity to look after Mezcal, he remains invisible to Cherie. Then there’s Greta, who lacks the self-awareness to understand how lonely she truly is. Both Tom and Greta’s misfortune are self-inflicted. They make choices, whether it be Tom’s desire to please Cherie, or Greta’s desperation to replace Sophie, that in the spirit of the film, has absurd consequences.

Franck, on the other hand, is lonely in his marriage, and when he’s kicked out by his wife, he wonders if he’ll ever find anyone again. Seron shows Franck a compassion that’s absent in the preceding cynical chapters, although he finds a way to tease us about whether he has changed, or whether he’s the eternal pessimist.

A comedy’s charm can wane after a first viewing when the humour lacks spontaneity. Will Seron’s film be a one-time wonder? Only time will tell, but even Woody Allen’s 1972 comedy anthology, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), which conveniently has a segment where Gene Wilder’s character has a love affair with a sheep, and wrecks his marriage, suffered this unenviable fate.

Regardless of whether it’s a one-time thing, Seron’s film is one of those indie comedy treats, even if each story reminds us, that life’s a bitch, whether you’re walking on two legs or four.

Life’s a Bitch just premiered in the Rebels With a Cause Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Paul Risker - 11-11-2023

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