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Luc Besson's fanciful and bizarre allegory of animal love and crossdressing is resolutely barking mad -


Sixty-five-year-old French director continues his strange tradition of making French films entirely spoken in English, a feather-ruffling trend that he started decades ago with this magnum opus The Fifth Element (1997). This time, the disconnect is even more pronounced. Unlike its more famous predecessor, DogMan is not billed as a French-American co-production but instead as a pure French film. And the story does not take place in a remote, nationless future, but instead very much on present-day US soil, and the cast is almost entirely American. I wonder how he gets around his country’s language-protective laws (a few years ago, the mere inclusion of English lyrics in the country’s Eurovision entry invoked the wrath of French politicians).

Doug loves dogs. The movie starts with our protagonist (played by Caleb Landry Jones) inside a lorry with carrying countless pooches. He is crossdressed and the vehicle is crashed. He is a little disorientated, however calm. He demands that the police officer pointing a gun to his head offers him a cigarette. He is unfazed by human cruelty for reasons that we will later learn. And he will do anything in order to vouch for the wellbeing of his canine friends, whom he describes as his “children”. Now under arrest, he is interviewed by psychiatrist Evelyn (Jojo T. Gibbs). He shares the details of his tragic life with the doting and empathetic woman. Luc Besson zigzags back and forth in time, allowing flashbacks to illustrate the bizarre events that led Doug to imprisonment.

Brought up in a loveless household, Doug’s father ultra-violent and spiteful father Mike (Clemens Schick) locks him up with in their backyard kennel. His older brother is jubilant and his mother complacent, at best. One day, dad shoots Doug (now interpreted by a doggedly determined Lincoln Powell) as he attempts to protect a newborn litter of dogs from impending destruction. But our protagonist has developed such a strong bond with his furry friends that he manages attract the attention of the police by dog-whispering very detailed instructions. His father gets arrested, but it’s too late. The gunshot has caused Doug to lose a finger and also the mobility of his lower limbs, after the bullet became lodged amongst his vertebrae. He becomes confined to clunky and loudly grating leg braces.

This is a movie with countless twists and turns, a wilfully absurd plot, and a helplessly absurdist protagonist. There are a lot of hilarious and heartwarming sequences, particularly as the well-behaved dogs react to the ill-tempered and bad-mannered humans. The orderly pack will do anything in order to care for their daddy, be that fetching as pack of sugar or killing a villain or two. We eventually learn that Doug resorted to crossdressing as the local drag cabaret is the only place that would give him a job opportunity. He finds catharsis and absolution in singing, delivering both Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich songs firmly on his feet (he can stand, but he cannot walk unaided).

While outlandish, loud and insane enough to keep you hooked for its duration of nearly two hours, DogMan doesn’t have a lot to say. Except that humans are bad and dogs are good, a message repeated ad infinitum, with didactic fervour. Yet, this parable doesn’t quite work as a heart-wrenching tale of animal love. The dogs are just too many and the interactions just too contrived. The bond between Doug and his pooches isn’t particularly moving, in a film that fails to elicit sincere sentiments. Luc Besson’s new creation is not to be confused with Matteo Garrone’s humanistic and sensitive Dogman (Matteo Garrone, 2018), distinguished only by the capitalisation of the “m” in the middle.

Plus, there is no LGBT+ sensibility in the crossdressing. While Doug is neither gay nor trans, he’s clearly queer because he finds profound satisfaction in female impersonation. But the cabaret acts lack vigour, and Landry Jones is just too straight-faced (pun intended) for the role. The songs are as mainstream and predictable as it gets: Sweet Dreams, Lili Marleen, La Foule, and a cringey grand finale with Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. Plus some of the gimmicks are just so sadistic and bizarre, that Doug almost lapses into Buffalo Bill territory. This is unintentional: Doug is meant to be the epitome of dignity. The wooden braces add a redundant element of grotesquerie. A gratuitous and ineffective shock device.

DogMan just opened the 23rd edition of the Transilvania International Film Festival. The event took place the at the Piata Unirii open air cinema (in the Transylvanian capital, Cluj Napoca) to roughly 3,500 film lovers, sitting both inside and outside the fenced area. The ceremony included “flying” acrobats from Belgium, hanging from a giant ring hoisted by an industrial crane, and a brief speech by film star Jojo T. Gibbs (the American star confessed she didn’t even know Transylvania existed, in an embarrassing display of her geography skills). The weather was very pleasant during the day, but temperatures dropped once the sun set, leaving many guests to use a little blanket generously provided by the Festival. Open to film professionals and the public alike, the event showcases roughly 250 films to 100,000 people every year.

By Victor Fraga - 15-06-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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