Monday, March 16, 2015
We don't learn a thing about the title character of Dog Lady—not even her name—except what we can glean by watching her move silently through her world. But that tells us a lot, revealing a resourceful, unflappable and observant woman who's the undisputed alpha of the pack of dogs she lives with.
This near-wordless, plot-free film makes Wendy and Lucy, another closely observed, hyper-realistic movie about a homeless woman with a dog, look positively dramatic in comparison. With no form of transportation other than her feet, she spends a lot of time walking through the unpeopled Argentinian countryside where she lives, only occasionally venturing to the nearby town as she works at keeping herself and her dogs fed, sheltered, and supplied with the basics they subsist on. She has encounters with a few people—notably a clueless doctor, a kind friend, and a gallant gaucho—but the vast majority of the time, her dogs are her only companions. She hunts birds with her slingshot, makes lanyards from plastic bags, plants a garden, transforms her lean-to into a little house using recycled and repurposed materials, and gathers firewood, water and useful cast-offs as some or all of her canine companions trot or loll by her side. As busy as she is, she finds plenty of occasions to stop and soak in the view or just sit with her dogs. It's a peaceful, tranquil, sane life; she seems to be the freest woman alive.
Nothing intrudes on this woman’s world that she doesn’t invite, except one noisy pack of boys who taunt and throw stones at her, and she drives them off easily enough with her slingshot. Her deliberate, self-assured pace is matched by the rhythm of the film itself. That rhythm is both calming and stimulating, as is the soundtrack, which is almost all diagetic and organic, alive with birdcalls and barks and the tattoo of raindrops on her homemade roof.
Taking place over the course of a year and divided into fourths by the seasons, the film unobtrusively answers many of the questions that occur to most of us if we try to imagine life off the grid: Where to get food and water? How to stay clean? What to do if one gets sick? How to stay warm in the winter? Thankfully, it doesn’t assign the dogs Disney-style personalities or even noticeable attributes to distinguish one from another. Instead, the camera simply observes as they act like dogs, twitching in their sleep, trotting away from the pack to investigate an intriguing sound, roiling around the woman in a state of excitement after a hunt, or settling down on their haunches to rest. After a while, the audience almost becomes part of that pack, stripped down to pure intuition and observation as we follow the dog lady closely, interested in everything she does even though much of it remains a mystery.
Written for Slant Magazine