Cannes 2014: 'White God' review

★★☆☆☆
The recently crowned winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at this year's Cannes is Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's sixth feature, White God (2014), a sort of canine Rise of Planet of the Apes (2011). Following a short surreal opening which sees a girl cycling through a deserted Budapest, pursued by a large pack of dogs. At first it seems a dream sequence, there's something about the girl which is quite dreamy as well as she doesn't seem terrified or even to be peddling particularly quickly. The girl, 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) has been sent to stay with her ex-professor father (Sándor Zsótér) by her academic mother, who is off to Australia for a conference with her new professor partner.

Lili brings an unwelcome guest in her big mixed breed Labrador-y pet, Hagen. Her dad is in no mood for such inconvenience. Perhaps brutalised by his job in a meat processing plant, certainly still nursing a broken heart and lumped with the possibility of having to pay a hefty registration fee, he decides to get shot of the pooch. What ensues is a reminiscent of The Incredible Journey as Hagen tries to return home and despite befriending a cute mutt - in the Disney version there would be a duet here - falls in with a series of exploitative and humans whilst all the time being pursued by the nasty municipal dog catchers. Meanwhile, back at home Lili is distraught and in her attempts to find her beloved Hagen, begins to wreck her own life by drinking, smoking and generally acting up.

In a late twist, Hagen - now trained as a fighting dog - engineers a mass escape from the dog pound and the mongrels take on the city, enacting a series of vengeful killing against those who have harmed Hagen in the past (The Littlest Hobo meets The Birds/Death Wish). All these comparisons might have you licking your lips and if this were schlockier and cheaper there would be a good film here. But Mundruczó aspires to some kind of political allegory here - an urban Animal Farm - and wants us to take things seriously. Asher Goldschmidt's score, for instance, feels lifted from a slick Hollywood thriller and the scenes with the dogs are intermittently convincing. The dog fight scene is poor and there is no terror whatsoever toward the end, as people have to fall over in order to be in proper jeopardy.

As for the parable about the marginalised people of the world rising up, it has no coherence and simply makes no sense. Who are the dogs supposed to be? Immigrants? The poor? Or are they just dogs and we should treat animals better? Reading it as a parable also makes Lili's role problematic, is she there to calm the dogs and lead them like a trumpet playing pied piper into the gas chambers? Animal Farm, we have to remember, wasn't just a crazy fable about a bunch of animals taking over, it actually made discernible sense. That said, the two dogs that played Hagen deserve the canine version of the best actor role and the film has moments of ludicrous fun, including that opening scene. However, as a social commentary, White God is unfortunately barking up the wrong tree.

The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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