'My Dog Stupid' ('Mon chien Stupide'): Film Review

Courtesy pf Studio Canal
A well-played and melancholic remarriage dramedy.

Actor-director Yvan Attal ('Le Brio') and co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg play a couple in crisis in this French-language adaptation of John Fante’s novella.

Although his books were championed by the likes of Charles Bukowski, considered precursors to the Beats and adapted into several movies — including Robert Towne’s misbegotten Colin Farrell-Selma Hayek starrer Ask the Dusk (2006) the Italian-American novelist and screenwriter John Fante remains a fairly unknown quantity in the U.S., whereas in France he’s an author whose work can be found at any local bookstore.

After achieving minor success in the 1930s with his early autobiographical novels, Fante spent the rest of his life cashing paychecks as a Hollywood scribe, with credits that include forgotten films like Youth Runs Wild (1944), My Man and I (1952), Jeanne Eagels (1957) and the Nelson Algren story Walk on the Wild Side (1962). (Fante was also one of the writers on Orson Welles’ unfinished third feature, It’s All True.) In the meantime, he continued to pen novels until his death in 1983, with his last book, the novella collection West of Rome, published posthumously in 1986.

The bluntly titled My Dog Stupid, which is one of the two stories that make up Rome, is a hilariously honest self-portrait of Fante as an over-the-hill loser — a failed novelist and hack screenwriter with four spoiled kids and a wife who can’t stand him. The man’s only solace comes in the form of a giant sex-crazed Akita dog that wanders onto his beachside property one night and quickly becomes his best friend, accompanying Fante’s alter ego, Henry J. Molise, as he suffers through an extended family drama.

In the French adaptation Mon chien Stupide, actor-director Yvan Attal updates Fante’s novella to both the present day and to his own life, particularly his long-term relationship with co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg. In a way, the pic makes up the third part of a trilogy that began in 2002 with Attal’s My Wife Is an Actress and was followed two years later by …And They Lived Happily Ever, with all three films providing an inside glimpse into the couple’s many ups, downs and emotional turnarounds.

The result is a well-written and -played remarriage dramedy that explores the Attal-Gainsbourg duo as they hit middle age and their kids gradually, and sometimes relucantly, leave the nest. If some of the jokes and characterizations, especially involving the children, can seem hoary, the film’s depiction of marital foibles feels clever and candid, focusing on the realities that couples face as they try to stick together into their 50s. And even if Attal sugarcoats his ending in a way that feels unnecessary, the rest of his movie has a truthful sting to it.

My Dog Stupid keeps most of Fante’s original framework until veering into unchartered territory in the third act: Attal plays a French writer named Henri Mohen who lives with his partner, Cécile (Gainsbourg), and their four troublesome children — Raphaël (Ben Attal), Pauline (Adèle Wismes), Noé (Pablo Venzal) and Gaspard (Panayotis Pascot) — in a sunken ranch-style home near the southwestern surf city of Biarritz. With his last good novel published 25 years ago, and his kids all driving him crazy, Henri has little to look forward to until a stray he names Stupide (played here by a massive Neapolitan Mastiff instead of an Akita) shows up on his doorstep and gradually becomes part of the family, for better and mostly for worse.

The script, written by Attal with Yaël Langmann and Dean Craig, takes a detour from Fante's book to explore the caustic dichotomy between Henri and Cécile in detail, with the former’s moodiness and insults becoming too much for the latter — who gave up a potential career as a literary scholar in order to raise their children — to handle. (The movie also discards the book’s more questionable instances of racism and sexism, although it strangely keeps a running gag where Henri keeps referring to Stupide as a “faggot dog.”)

As the kids begin to leave the house for new and problematic horizons, the couple is eventually left alone to tackle their various issues, with the pic’s second half marked by the kind of push-and-pull banter found in Attal’s previous collaborations with Gainsbourg.

Those late sequences, including one where the two have it out during a long marijuana-infused confessional, reveal the Antichrist and Nymphomanic star in a way we’ve rarely seen: Cécile comes across as more blunt, natural and comfortable with herself compared to women Gainsbourg has played in the past. She also shows flashes of whimsy and carefreeness despite the fact that Cécile seems to hate Henri’s guts, and winds up having an affair with a college professor (Eric Ruf) so she can get away from him.

Although the dialogue is laced with one-liners and there are plenty of canine jokes to go around — some of them work well and some fall rather flat — My Dog Stupid is really a melancholic movie about a midlife crisis with no foreseeable end in sight. For a French film, it has a distinctly American vibe to it (Attal cites Cassavetes in the press notes, although the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man also comes to mind) that’s more dark comedy than marital farce.

Working with veteran cinematographer Rémy Chevrin (Sorry Angel), Attal maintains a somber tone throughout the narrative, steeping the hostilities in shades of ochre and gray, with many scenes set at night or in the rain. Production designer Samuel Deshors, who worked on Call Me by Your Name, turns the isolated Craftsman-style country house into a broad stage where the Mohen family continuously has it out. A score by jazz musician Brad Mehldau, including a lovely solo piano rendition of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” further adds to a downcast atmosphere that’s not without a glimmer of hope.

Released wide in France by StudioCanal, My Dog Stupid could see overseas action in territories that played the other parts of the trilogy — Sony Pictures Classics and Kino International respectively distributed Attal's first two movies in the U.S. — though, given the current climate, it’s hard to say whether that means on the big or small screen.

Production companies: Same Player, Good Times Production, Montauk Films
Cast: Yvan Attal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Ben Attal, Adèle Wismes, Pablo Venzal, Panayotis Pascot, Eric Ruf
Director: Yvan Attal
Screenwriters: Dean Craig, Yvan Attal, Yaël Langmann, based on the novella by John Fante
Producers: Vincent Roget, Georges Kern, Florian Genetet-Morel
Director of photography: Rémy Chevrin
Production designer: Samuel Deshors
Costume designer: Carine Sarfati
Editor: Célia Lafitedupont
Composer: Brad Mehldau
Casting director: Gigi Akoka
Sales: StudioCanal

In French
105 minutes