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‘Love Is a Dog From Hell’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 03, 1988

"Love Is a Dog From Hell" begins with the sound of yowling cats behind an image of a whopping big moon, and immediately a fervid, sensuous mood is established. The film is adapted by Dominique Deruddere from stories by Charles Bukowski, and in bringing this material to the screen the 31-year-old Belgian has fashioned a work that is complicated, troubling and, in places, hard to stomach. At the same time, he has traded in Bukowski's rowdy tone for something softer, less raucous and American -- something more poignant.

The film is staged in three episodes, each describing a moment in the unfortunate life of Harry Voss. In the opening sequence, Harry (Geert Hunaerts) is a fresh-faced farm lad of 12, with bright, hungry eyes. When we first see him, he is sitting enraptured in a movie theater as a virginal fairy-book princess is rescued (and passionately kissed) by her brave knight lover. Afterward, Harry spies a photo of the movie princess in the display out front, and sneaks it into his shirt.

These early scenes, which show a young boy's vision of the world as a place of poetic romance, have the texture of a reverie. The subsequent scenes, in which Harry is taken in hand by his older and more experienced friend Stan (Michael Pas) or walks in on his parents as they are making love, are designed to point up the discrepancy between the boy's downy visions and the practical realities of sex. These are harsh lessons, and they take their toll. Lying in bed one night, he takes out his picture of the movie princess and, looking into her eyes, begins sadly, almost grimly, to masturbate.

No face could be more the opposite of that movie-star face, or more unlovable, than Harry's in the film's second episode. In this section, which is set seven years later, Harry (Josse De Pauw) is a sensitive-souled 19-year-old, with a face so ravaged by acne that he hides himself away, sitting alone in the dark, tormenting himself with anthemic pop love songs like Roy Orbison's "Love Hurts." So ashamed of his festering pustules that he skips his high school graduation, Harry writes poetry and pines away for Liza (Anne Van Essche), a cool, delectable blond in his class. And when he recites a verse he's written for her to one of his classmates, the boy persuades him to attend their graduation ball, where, he promises, Harry's placid dream girl will look past his foul eruptions and see the poet in his eyes.

We know from our own reactions to Harry how unlikely this is. The toughest part isn't looking at Harry's face, though that's hard enough; it's witnessing the revulsion and self-hatred he feels looking into the mirror, and the misery he endures as a result of this imprisonment inside his own horrible flesh.

For this reason, the credit here should go to De Pauw, and not the film's makeup artist. This is a powerful, corrosive, unstintingly tough-minded performance. And though Deruddere's romanticism in the first section is muzzy and nonspecific, it has a knife-edged sharpness in the second. After an unfulfilling moment in the back seat of a car with his best friend's girl, Harry wraps his head, mummylike, in toilet paper and confidently leads Liza out onto the dance floor. Holding her gently in his arms, he imagines himself as someone he will never be, saying things he can never say. And though it's a moment of soaring triumph -- like the one in the movie that opens the film -- you can feel him dying too. The look in his eyes as they peek out from behind his tissue mask is blighted. Not only does love hurt, it kills.

Harry is 33 in the film's third section, and though his skin has cleared up, the emotional scarring is just as visible. This is the episode that perhaps will be most talked about, but it's not as strong as the preceding one. The notoriety comes from the sequence in which, for a lark, Harry and his friend (Amid Chakir) steal a corpse out of a hearse, carry it off, and after unzipping the body bag, find that their prize is a breathtaking, still-warm blond (played by the same actress, Florence Beliard, who played the princess). Overwhelmed by her beauty, Harry quietly, tenderly climbs on top of her, much to the horror of his companion.

For Harry this is a moment of transcendence. But one has to be deeply suspicious of the conclusions Deruddere has arrived at here. The movie doesn't sensationalize Harry's atrocity; instead, it's presented as a poetic fulfillment, all in a mood of straight-faced empathy for the sensitive feelings Harry has kept bottled up inside him.

As a justification for necrophilia this is dubious at best. Still, in making contact with this mopey, mock-tragic view of sex and the world of women, the movie tangles with something potent, even if it goes all gooey in the process, especially in the last scene, where Harry takes the corpse as his bride. I'd have liked the movie better if Deruddere had given a hint that he saw how perversely, morbidly sick this is; if the tone were a little less earnest. Deruddere finds too many easy ironies in Harry's story. Perhaps it would have been more honest if he hadn't changed the Bukowski story, in which both men have their way with the dead girl, then casually toss her body into the ocean. At least then he couldn't be accused of being soft on necrophilia.

"Love Is a Dog From Hell," in Flemish with English subtitles, contains material unsuitable for children.

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