Dobermann (1997)

D: Jan Kounen
S: Vincent Cassell, Monica Bellucci

Those for whom the words 'French film' conjures up images of prissy bourgeois couples defined by restraint and emotional suppression contemplating life in well-kempt homes and boulevard cafes will find this film a welcome breath of rancid air. This vicious, hyperkinetic, completely over the top action flick is styled after the work of Luc Besson and Jeunet and Caro. It is more Blade and From Dusk Till Dawn than Three Colours: Blue; based upon a comic-strip serial and showing it.

Bank robber Vincent Cassell and his gang of colourful henchmen carry out a major job and then hang out in a techno night club before dividing the spoils. Unbeknownst to them they have been betrayed and brutal cop Tcheky Karyo is about to try to bring them in, dead or alive. There are no complex sub-texts here, just violent, cartoonish action from start to finish, brought to life in eye-popping set pieces which incorporate computer generated imagery and various other pyrotechnics. This is not a film for the faint hearted, nor is it intended to be. It is graphic, nasty and frequently tasteless and most casual viewers will be rightly appalled.

At one point nearing the climax, one of the supporting characters, a bisexual junk dealer with a sideline in heavy artillery and extremely bad teeth, squats down by a canal to relieve himself. He tears a page out of a copy of Cahiers du Cinema to wipe himself (which happens to contain an article about 'the new auteurs of French cinema'). This exemplifies the attitude of the film, which from its opening scenes is intentionally empty eye-candy with a real mean streak intended to shock and appal those for whom such things are shocking and appalling.

Yes there is a real question mark over a film as cruel and empty as this. It lacks the moral edge of Reservoir Dogs, the human drama of Nikita and Leon, or the heartfelt sincerity of Face/Off. It is vapid and exploitative and probably unnecessarily gory and explicit. It is the kind of film that conservative writers and critics will have a field day with, posturing over its vacuous amorality with much huffing and puffing, and they may well have a point.

Yet the viewer must give pause and notice the tongue pressed firmly in their cheek. It is difficult to take this film seriously, and its outrageous styling, pulse-pounding soundtrack and plethora of zooms and sweaty close ups almost have to produce bouts of laughter. This is not a serious social statement and it is not about to produce a generation of psychopaths purely on the basis of the actions it portrays. It is well mounted cinematic bubblegum of the kind American cinema has been doing perfectly well for years with very little resistance. It has occasional echoes of Natural Born Killers (with a touch of Heat), but it is certainly not concerned with making any kind of statement other than that made in its opening graphics when a computer-animated dog/man opens his jeans and urinates over the title.

Dobermann is full of familiar situations and ideas despite its cutting edge veneer. This is cops and robbers for the late twentieth century, with the villains most definitely the heroes and the forces of law and order a representation of fascistic social control by torture and terror. Its moral universe is inverted, and its attitude to the sexual preference of its characters notably fluid (though it flaunts bisexuality, there is an undercurrent of disapproval in the way in which the sub-plots and survivors work out). Yet it is easy to pick up and follow the currents of the gangster film and its glamourous contemporary sheen. The film is not intended to tax the brain, and it doesn't.

It is entertaining if you're of a mind to watch it in the first place, though it must be admitted that there are several scenes which make you squirm until you remind yourself that it is only a movie (particularly that where Karyo terrorises the kind of bourgeois family more typical of French cinema, but within which are hypocracies waiting to be unfolded). There will be those for whom it is indefensible, and there is a valid argument to be made that it is a desensitising experience (Michael Haneke's Funny Games is a thesis on this kind of thing which is worth watching if you are of this disposition). But there will also be those for whom the film is enjoyable, and one would hope purely on the level of over the top spectacle rather than life lesson.

Worth seeing, but be warned.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.