One hot weekend in the suburbs of Vienna six interwoven stories slowly unfold. Elderly Walter argues with his neighbours, visits the supermarket and persuades his housekeeper to dress in his dead wife's clothes. One-time beauty queen Klaudia has trouble with her jealous boyfriend Mario. A divorcee has sex with her masseur while her ex-husband watches in the background. Burgular alarm salesman Hruby searches out clients in the area. Anna spends the day hitching rides, but ends up in trouble after Hruby claims she scratched his car. Whilst Wickerl and his friend Lucky sexually humiliate the middle-aged schoolteacher Wickerl has been dating.
If your idea of Austrians is of cheerful folk cavorting about mountains or relaxing in old-world coffee-shops, Dog Days will come as quite a shock. Set amid the residential streets and shopping precincts of a charmless, sterile southern suburb of Vienna, documentary-maker Ulrich Seidl's first feature revels in the ugliness, both physical and moral, of his characters. None of these are people you'd want to spend time with: in fact most of them you'd go several miles out of your way to avoid, which perhaps accounts for the strangely perverse fascination there is about watching them.
Dog Days--it takes place, as you might guess, during a sticky, sweltering July heatwave that improves tempers not one bit--comes on rather like a low-rent version of Robert Altman's Short Cuts. We meet a dozen or so main characters, all of whom gradually come to impact on each other's lives in various ways. Among them, a girl with a psychotically jealous boyfriend; an elderly man who obsessively stockpiles groceries, first weighing them to check for the least hint of short measure; an estranged couple still sharing a house, where the wife entertains her lovers under her husband's morose gaze; a middle-aged schoolteacher whose abusive lover invites lowlifes to join in humiliating her; a no-hoper salesman of security systems; and the world's most excruciatingly irritating hitch-hiker.
There's a dark humour at work here; after a while the sheer bleakness and collective vindictiveness become wincingly funny. Seidl's disenchanted view of his compatriots, and his contempt for their vaunted gemütlichkeit, is epitomised by his image of a man forced to sing the Austrian national anthem ("A nation blessed by its sense of beauty") stark naked with a lighted candle up his backside. To cap it all, he can't remember the words. --Philip Kemp