Luc Besson’s tale of a troubled man who finds salvation through his love of dogs has more bark than bite.
Dir/scr: Luc Besson. France. 2023. 114mins
Caleb Landry Jones, in drag, in a wheelchair, surrounded by a pack of dogs of all breeds, shapes and sizes, who are devoted to their master and fetch pretty much anything for him – and tear pretty much everyone else to pieces. The most Hollywood of French directors, Luc Besson has a vivid visual imagination, one that has more than once made up for the often cartoonish plots of his action, sci-fi and fantasy capers, or even exalted them. This is not the case here. Dogman may have a more intimate, reflective tone than much of his work – at least until its final man-versus-dog showdown – but it struggles to get past that initial cool pitch.
Does not quite have the courage of its convictions
Shot in English, partly in New Jersey, this is the first film Besson and his producer wife Virginie Besson-Silla have made together since a series of unproven sex allegations against the director at home in France. Months after his rape acquittal, Dogman now plays in Competition in Venice; whatever the intentions were behind programming it here, it’s a high-profile slot which does the film a disservice. A lurid tale which seems half in debt to The Joker, half to the literary genre known as the ‘misery memoir’, it would sit better out of the limelight. Landry Jones is fine, after all: he doesn’t exactly broaden his range in this role of a fragile weirdo, but he puts in an affecting performance in a comedy-tinged action drama that will appeal to dog lovers who don’t mind gnawing on a tired, clichéd ‘big emotional journey’ for almost two hours.
It takes a lot of back-story gristle to unravel why Landry Jones’s character Douglas is is wheelchair-bound and holed up in an abandoned school surrounded by the dogs he calls ‘my babies’. Revealed in a series of saturated flashback scenes to a police psychiatrist named Evelyn, the answer involves a cage, a violent father, a weak mother and a vindictive religious nut of a brother. The brief cell exchanges between Douglas and Evelyn, played with quiet composure by Jojo T. Gibbs, are the best thing about Dogman. This damaged man, in full Marilyn Monroe drag when arrested, opens up with a kind of brash fatalism to this serious woman, who has her own issues as a single mother with an abusive former husband. This too is a deeply hackneyed set-up, but at least there’s some dramatic crackle in the air.
The same does not go for the rest of the story, which reaches its lowpoint in a sequence set in a children’s home that explains how Douglas was turned on to Shakespeare, and the pleasures of dressing up and being somebody else, by a gushingly enthusiastic drama teacher (Grace Palma). Do we really need to see so many of his school Shakespeare performances? And when he finally does get a break – as a lip-sync drag artist – do we really need to see him singing ALL of Edith Piaf’s carnival-of-life torch song ’La Foule’?
Set in anonymous scrappy blue-collar East Coast suburbia, Dogman’s one big idea is that dogs can somehow be so in tune with an intense, sympathetic loner that they do his bidding almost telepathically. But Dogman does not quite have the courage of its convictions to make this a full-blown fantastical take-it-or-leave-it premise, leaving us wondering quite how Douglas trained his dogs to pull off jewel heists in fancy villas or enter the lair of a local gang boss and clamp their jaws around his crotch. Best not to trouble your head with difficult questions like this: just enjoy the dogs, who are indeed adorable – especially those huge Hungarian Komondors (or are they Italian Bergamascos?) who look like they’ve got all tangled up in a 1960s shagpile rug.
Production companies: LBP, Europacorp, TF1 Films Production
International sales: Kinology, email@example.com
Producer: Virginie Besson-Silla
Cinematography: Colin Wandersman
Production design: Hugues Tissandier
Editing: Julien Rey
Music: Eric Serra
Main cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Jojo T. Gibbs, Christopher Denham, Clemens Schick, John Charles Aguilar, Grace Palma, Iris Bry, Marisa Berenson, Lincoln Powell, Alexander Settin