'Love 1. Dog' ('Dragoste 1. caine'): Film Review | Sarajevo 2018

A bleak close encounter with the hounds of love.

Two strangers are thrown together in a remote mountain cabin in Romanian writer-director Florin Serban's latest romantic psychodrama.

Destructive relationships between brooding men and beautiful women are a recurring obsession for Romanian writer-director Florin Serban. This dynamic was central to the plot of his 2010 debut, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, which earned multiple festival prizes before being submitted as Romania's official Oscar contender. His 2015 sophomore feature, Box, was rooted in a similar romantic psychodrama. And another ill-matched couple forge a dysfunctional bond in Serban's latest feature, Love 1. Dog, which premiered in competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival last month.

Billed as the first in a love-themed trilogy, this Poland-Romania co-production is essentially a two-hander that reunites Valeriu Andriuta and Cosmina Stratan, who previously appeared together in Cristian Mungiu's 2012 Oscar contender Beyond the Hills. The flinty tone, opaque plot and emotionally remote protagonists will limit the film's target audience to festivals and art house platforms. But taken on its own uncompromising terms, Love 1. Dog has a certain stark beauty and slow-burn intensity.

Serban's latest exploration of fatal attraction has the elemental simplicity of a Western, the creeping dread of a horror movie and the timeless otherness of a fairy tale. The setting is purposely vague, the location a remote log cabin nestled high in mountainous woodland. This is home to Simion (Andriuta), a taciturn hunter who lives a harsh existence with just his dog and donkey for company. But Simion's hermit routine is shaken one day when he discovers a young woman on the mountain, Irina (Stratan), who is beaten and bruised from an unexplained attack.

Convalescing in the cabin, Irina remains cryptic about her injuries, refusing Simion's offer to seek medical help in the nearest village. Sharing few words, the pair begin an uneasy cohabitation. Perhaps inevitably, after years as a recluse, Simion begins to develop feelings for his guest that he cannot fully articulate or control. He becomes jealous and protective, panicking when he returns to find the cabin empty while Irina bathes in a nearby stream: "Do you think you can get away for me that easily?" he asks, ominously. Kathy Bates in Misery springs to mind.

A key flaw in Serban's screenplay is how Irina remains a psychologically blank mystery compared to Simion. Even so, she is clearly depicted as smart enough to pick up on his increasingly creepy, possessive attitude towards her. On a visually spectacular climb to the mountain's rocky peak, a near-vertical gravel slope topped by a mighty granite cave, she caustically remarks that he secretly craves "the chance of saving me again." All this pent-up erotic tension finally erupts into sex and violence in the film's explosive final act, which strains credibility as naturalistic drama but works on a kind of poetic fable level.

In technical terms, Love 1. Dog is a frugal but finely crafted package. The two leads both wring emotionally raw performances from minimal dialogue and slim screenplay clues. Despite a somber color palette, Marcin Koszalka's cinematography finds elemental poetry in the visual setting, especially the majestic mountain vistas. Composer Pauchi Sasaki also supplies a steady slo-mo drip of low-level tension with a skeletal, discordant, folk-tinged score. Serban is reportedly gearing up to premiere the second chapter in his trilogy, Love 2. America, featuring unrelated characters in a different setting, before winter arrives.

Production companies: Fantascope, Harine Films
Cast: Valeriu Andriuta, Cosmina Stratan, Florin Hritcu, Mihaela Macelaru, Vitalie Bantas
Director-writer-editor: Florin Serban
Producers: Florin Serban, Oana Iancu, Florentina Onea, Izabela Igel.
Cinematographer: Marcin Koszalka
Music: Pauchi Sasaki
Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival (Competition)
Sales company: Fantascope, Romania

103 minutes