Collie, Come Home

in 26th Ljubljana International Film Festival

by Eithne O'Neill

Without further ado, the film opens on a wild-life documentary about the mating habits of amphibian creatures. The extract hints wryly at the sexuality and the ocean that play their part in this intricate contemporary drama. Omerzu’s second feature film brings to the screen a disturbing story that is also entertaining. Then, a slightly grizzled dad called Igor asks his teenage son Erik, if he is going to “miss” Otto. And answer there is none. Who is Otto anyway? And Omerzu, the Slovenian-born director who signs the script, favours undemonstrative characters while Erik is grappling with the new perspective of demon sex. Hence the interest in what the birds and the bees and even fish actually do. Gradually we realize that Otto is the dog, beloved of all, given the gentleness with which the shaggy black and white pet is treated to a shot at the vet’s before being shipped off. Where to?

From the outset, the director’s guideline is clear: do not waste time explaining, let the filmgoer infer what is going on, a somewhat similar approach to the ethos of the wealthy urbane milieu described. All profess and act along a polite concern for the other. But is that enough? What about awareness of deep needs? Where does meaning lie? Igor’s question to his son is in fact a displacement of the object, from Igor to Otto; instead of asking point-blank: are you going to miss me? The important words are left unsaid. Otto then is the go-between. And although the main backdrop is beautiful Prague, the drama could take place anywhere in the world, and the passage from autumn to winter echoes the trauma undergone.

Oblique artistic and structural means convey the upheaval brought about by the unwitting irresponsibility of self-centred, hedonistic adults. A months-long holiday for Mom and Dad is the getaway on their private self-navigated yacht in the turquoise seas around the Virgin Islands. They leave their teenage offspring behind without supervision and without a qualm since, at the end of the school-term, 17 years-old Anna and her kid brother Erik are to fly out to join them for Christmas. Credit cards, Skype and the spacious quarters of a luxury flat with their friends and appliances supply creature comforts, not forgetting Anna’s vampy friend, Irene a precocious man-eater. What of Erik’s awakening in this permissive set-up, to what extent can Anna be expected to control his desire to experiment?

The use of “film” in the title conjures up the smoothness of style and of the actors’ direction, the subdued blues of the interior décor, the up-market clothes, the unreality of this world. Elegant long shots on Prague in white are due to cinematographer Lukas Milota. Understatement rather than opulence is the name of the game, as the children air their blasé attitudes, the only enemy being boredom. Instead of shot reverse shot and talking things out, or the whys and the wherefores, two structural devices further the tension. The first is cross-editing. As soon as the plot thickens back home, the action switches to Mom and Dad having it off on board their yacht or in the ocean-swell Alone in Paradise? Not quite: faithful Otto cavorts with them and wallows in affection. In the Czech capital, through the chats with Mama, the bond between Erik and Mom is shown as special one. Now she has gone. Benumbed by sensual arousal Erik is playing hooky, the school is alarmed. Enter Martin, their Dad’s brother. Will this sensible uncle succeed in bringing things to an even keel? A seasoned bachelor who lives in the house of his childhood, he seems an ideal minder. What is he really like however? Playing a game like the rest?

The second technique is ellipsis, a logical consequence of cross-editing. For not only is the disappearance of the parents heralded solely by rumbling thunder, it is the dog Otto who signals the loss, swimming desperately through the sea, borne along by the rollers before collapsing on a deserted beach. In the aftermath of the parents’ disappearance, we follow the dog transformed into a canine Robinson Crusoe. We witness his near unbearable pluck, sheltering in a cave on the sea-shore, groping in the water frantically for shell-fish, crawling out when another electric storm subsides, bringing a whole palm-tree crashing down, eating birds’ eggs in the nest, waiting, waiting and pricking up his ears. Daniel Defoe would have approved.

Rather miraculously, the weather-beaten survivors of a shipwreck do show up. And after they have returned, human barriers too have been dropped. It is “time for a talk”. Or again, one might deduce that the director and his co-writer Nebosja Pop-Tasic, despite the sophisticated post-modern reserve and irony, are banking on the old proverb that, under certain circumstances, the truth will out; that however painful, it is morally and socially for the better. No one character is better than the others, since even the unscrupulous vamp girl seems appear to face the harsh reality about herself. There is a triple confrontation, between the two men, between the man and wife, and each one with himself or herself. They are faced with the shams they were. Good and bad are realities however elusive truth may be. We are dealing in ethical shades of grey and yet no one no-one is a villain and none are heroes.

Except for the dog; the solitude of Otto is heart-rending. Here melodrama rears its head again by falling back on the traditional motif of accidental repercussions. Miserable, blind drunk Erik falls into the snow-covered bank by the river at night, and comes close to death: what could be more melodramatic? Like Griffith’s Way Down East, but among the well-off? Why the sacrifice of a kidney by someone close. Who is that? The trope of the last-ditch operating- theatre scene goes back to Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession with the added 3rd millennium reminder that we are but fragile tissues, blood and bone.

All in all, it is the melodramatic retrieval of the possibility of open, loving relationships, without sentimentality, that counterbalances the more pragmatic and message of survival, of pulling together come what may. Thanks too, to Otto. I am myself surprised by my own admiration of this unique performance from the canine race- just in case it was too much for one shaggy collie!

Eithne O’Neill