Les Chiens

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Alain Jessua’s film Les Chiens (1979) takes the paranoia inherent to the white bourgeoisie and carries it through to its natural fascistic conclusion. The xenophobia, racism, classism, misogyny and general frustrations of the bourgeois community located in a French suburb are given a violent external expression via their dogs. Les Chiens is a scathingly critical portrait of the middle class in the guise of a thriller.

The ostensible protagonist of Les Chiens is Dr. Ferret (Victor Lanoux) who has recently come to the suburban community to open a private practice. As the newcomer, Ferret operates as an audience surrogate as he investigates and quietly opposes the regime of dog trainer Morel (Gérard Depardieu). Morel does more than just train dogs for protection, he conditions their owners to behave with hostility, prejudice and fear. The third character, Elisabeth (Nicole Calfan), is the most complex even though her function in the film is as a supporting character that motivates both the protagonist and the antagonist.

Elisabeth offers a contrast to Ferret’s anti-fascist self-righteousness. When she is introduced in Les Chiens it’s in a scene of sexual assault. Traumatized and angry, Elisabeth seeks to protect herself by embracing Morel’s ideologies and adopts a dog named Lea. Elisabeth’s arc goes from victim to a sense of closure and justice (when she catches her assailant) and then finally she too becomes a victimizer as one of Morel’s cohort.

The reason that characters remain largely underdeveloped is that filmmaker Alain Jessua features so many secondary and even background characters. Les Chiens constantly gestures towards becoming a portrait of a community ripped apart by fear and the violence enacted out of that fear. Ferret’s investigation into Morel and Morel’s own endeavors training dogs and people are revealed piecemeal by Jessua in a series of scenes that act as vignettes where the focus isn’t Ferret or Morel but that secondary character sharing that scene.

Jessua also goes to great lengths not to vilify the dogs, only the trainers. Les Chien offers the viewer images of tenderness between human and canine to match every image of horror and violence. For Jessua dogs have no political meaning but that which is given to them by their human counterparts. Dogs like Lea and Morel’s Lilith are treated as both noble and loving though misguided by their humans.

Within the vast, barren concrete landscapes of the suburbs Jessua finds the same horror and paranoia in the banal that characterizes David Cronenberg’s output in the seventies. But where the non-human is the perverting element in Cronenberg’s economy of terror, Jessua sees humanity as corrupting its own culture. Jessua proposes that by reacting violently to Senegalese immigrants and the working class the suburbanites in Les Chiens have not only instituted a fascist ideology but have embarked on a journey towards their own self-annihilation.