Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified the theater where the movie is playing. This version has been updated.
Dedicated to her late husband, musician Lou Reed (1942-2013), Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” is a lush, mournful essay on loss — a loss that may be too painful to address head-on. Sometimes, it seems, when confronting grief, what you need is a dog playing keyboards. But more on that later.
Words have limitations, the film suggests, blending home movies with Anderson’s expressionistic drawings and evocative shots of barren trees. Though the filmmaker wasn’t able to speak with Lolabelle — the couple’s beloved rat terrier, who died in 2011 and who lends the film its poetic title — Anderson is curious about the claim that the breed can understand up to 500 words. “Which ones?” she wonders aloud. (Anderson’s voice-over narration is delivered in a dry, distinctive manner that will be familiar from her 1981 hit “O Superman.”) On her mother’s deathbed, Anderson tells us, the woman spoke her dying words not to her loved ones but to imaginary animals only she could see.
But images have limitations, too, and Anderson’s don’t always serve her storytelling. Alternately abstract and literal, the film works best when what we see on screen doesn’t align with what we’re hearing. Anyone opting to buy the soundtrack album instead of a movie ticket would miss out on the inexplicably touching footage of Lolabelle performing at the piano.
“Heart of a Dog” avoids drippy sentimentality, but it’s still a tear-jerker, especially when Anderson speaks of how she and Reed took the dying Lolabelle out of the hospital so that the animal could spend her last hours at home. Weaving together stories of death with observations on the post-9/11 culture of surveillance, “Heart of a Dog” hints that the very language on which Anderson has built her career as a performance artist is finally inadequate in the face of mortality.
Padua is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains heartstring-tugging images of a dog. 75 minutes.