Animal Love begins innocently enough with a mangy young man lovingly wrestling with his dog and then taking said mangy young man taking his dog for a walk and training his furry friend to heel and whatnot, but the aesthetically aberrant documentary soon gets ugly when dubious people on the fringes of society begin popping up and doing things with their pets that would even make a monkey-lover like Michael Jackson cringe. Before that though, the viewer is briefly introduced to the insanity of animal rescue centers, which are notorious for making outrageous demands for a person to adopt a dog, with a pet owner—an old gay queen who has a violent dog and equally irritable, old boyfriend—featured in Animal Love reading the following adoption ad from a newspaper: “the decision to acquire a dog must be thought over carefully, it must not be made on a whim. You must be prepared to spend all of your free time with your dog; barely ever coming home during the week…and going away on the weekends – is not an option! You have to have regular working hours, so that the dog never has to be alone for more than 8 hours at a time. The dog needs an established and familiar place…of his very own in the apartment.” Rather depressingly, most of the unsettlingly ‘idiosyncratic’ subjects featured in the documentary can easily pass the petty prerequisites named in the pet adoption ad.
Without any doubt, two of the most pathetic people featured in Animal Love are two young and swarthy drifters, one of whom claims to have been born in a Viennese dumpster. In one of the various schemes to con people out of money so they do not starve to death, the seemingly half-braindead dumpster-baby goes around with his pet bunny at a train station and preys on peoples' emotions by asking them if they will give him money so he can ostensibly buy a bunny cage. The two drifters live in what looks like the bowels of a post-apocalyptic third world basement amongst a number of rats, which crawl around their furniture, but that does not stop one of the men from becoming a sort of avant-garde exhibitionist and masturbating amongst such filth for the cameraman (notably, Austrian auteur Michael Glawogger of Workingman's Death (2005) and Whores' Glory (2011) was responsible for acting as cinematographer for most of the film). Eventually, a man who claims to be the stationmaster busts the two drifters at the train station for soliciting and ‘fencing’ and they all get into a quasi-philosophical debate about the inability of longtime panhandlers to find real jobs. The two bums also have a philosophical debate about the nature of the word ‘cunt’ and how one of the dude’s ex-girlfriend slapped him in the face for using the word in what was supposed to be a complimentary fashion. In what seems to be old versions of the young bums, two borderline elderly dog lovers/homosexual queens read pet classifieds ads and bicker about their incapacity to pay their electric and phone bills, among various other debts. Meanwhile, a bunch of old people in a retirement home receive bunny rabbits to play with in their hospital beds, but they seem less than interested in their new furry friends as they all look like they have dementia. Unquestionably, two of the most repellant characters in Animal Love are a swinger couple that look like they are in their mid-30s but describe themselves as, “a loving, attractive couple, ages 25 and 30. SHE: flexible, lingerie-loving, looking for another nice couple between 18 and 35…for lust-filled partner-switching games, especially gentle cuddling, French style, and picture-taking.” Naturally, being swingers, the couple does not mind having sex on camera and of course they do it doggy style for the the viewer's viewing displeasure.
On the other side of town, a middle-age alcoholic with a huge gut gives his girlfriend an ultimatum that she must get rid of all her pets or else he will stay with his other girlfriend. The girlfriends makes the claim that he ‘keeps her like a pet’ and the aggressive, if not slow-witted and less than mobile, alcoholic retorts by stating, “I don’t even want to come back to you” and “if you think I want to fuck you, I’ll fuck you long and hard.” Of course, Animal Love would not be complete without a full funeral ceremony for a little dog who the owner pays sentimental tribute to by saying, “You were our little girl,” as if his child had just died. In what is one of the more humorous segments of the documentary, a married middle-aged couple that look like human pugs take turns using their pet pug as a source of therapy and solace, bashing their partner while talking to the little dog. The wife even offers the pug, whose name is ‘Mopsi’, a ‘puggy-girl’ so he can have pug pups, so long as her hubby is kicked out of the house. In a scene that might scare Israelis more than other viewers, a dead dog is cremated in an oven by an Aryan cremator. Rather strangely, the most attractive and wealthy, if not past her prime, woman in Animal Love is also the one who comes closest to committing actual bestiality. On top of dancing with her husky dog to Italian opera music and reading it love letters from her admirers, the somewhat unhinged would-be-aristocrat bourgeois cougar French kisses her doggy while declaring her love to him while rolling around with the carnal canine on her bed. In one of the more disturbing scenes towards the end of the film, a man that owns a pack of Afghan Hounds—one of the oldest yet dumbest recognizable dog breeds in the world—shows the viewer how he forces one of the dogs to run on a treadmill with a rope fastened around its neck for what is the equivalent of 10km (over 6.2 miles) a day. In what is one of the anti-Heimat scenes shot in cinema history, a less than homely woman of the sexually ambiguous and racially Alpine sort (i.e. short, stocky, round-headed, etc.) sits in front of a wall-sized picture of the Austrian Central Alps and stares into space with the blankest of stares, thus acting in stark contrast to the idealized Austria of the past, which has been eclipsed by the Americanized post-industrial and socially dysfunctional Austria of today. Indeed, while watching Animal Love, the viewer can almost imagine to themselves seeing Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl stating to himself sarcastically, “There's No Place Like Home…There's No Place Like Home,” as he directed his countrymen for this deranging document of Viennese decay.
Indubitably, one of the major themes of Animal Love is the social-retarding effect that technology and urbanization have had on humanity, with the Austrian zoophiles featured in the documentary being unintentionally entertaining, if not decidedly depressing, products of an abstract and man made society that is at odds with nature and even man’s own organic essence. Aside from man himself, man’s best friend is the second most foremost victim of urban domestication, so it is only natural that when humans get fed up with other humans, they turn to dogs, who almost seem embarrassed by their owners in Seidl's film. With its curious collection of subjects, including two quasi-beatnik bums, an old queen couple, distastefully wanton white trash swingers, and a pseudo-aristocratic husky-humping over-the-hill sexpot, Animal Love demonstrates that misanthropy and disillusionment with modern life have reached all parts of postmodern Occidental society. In one rather insightful, if not still hilarious, scene, the white trash swinger dude goes on an anti-technocratic rant, stating, “We destroy nature with our own hands; at some point nature will take revenge and then we humans will be the losers. The animals will be the ones to survive. Not us. We say we’re the crowning touch to creation, but what are we really? Nothing. We’re no better than the chimpanzee in the jungle, the hyena in the Savannah…or the deer, stag and hare in the forest. Whatever. We extinguish our own living space with our so-called borders, our so-called morality. In our arrogance we call the animals’ way of living immoral. Actually they have a higher moral code than we humans.” Indeed, while the degenerate swinger is clearly out of his mind and a loser who is just trying to rationalize his animal-like existence of humping like a rabbit and living in squalor, he has a point. With its typically Seidl-esque, carefully stylized head-on shots and various scenes of subjects reading off dialogue from paper, it is sometimes hard to discern what percentage of Animal Love is pure and unadulterated documentary and what is carefully constructed by the documentarian, but what is quite obvious is that Seidl is a patent pessimist and major misanthrope, though who and what he hates and why is never clear. Of course, judging by his treatment of the Austrian bourgeois in his Paradies aka Paradise Trilogy (2012), it is clear that Seidl is no more critical of the pup-penetrating lumpenproles than he is of the upper-middle class. An artful ethnology in the postmodern age where even dogs suffer pathologies from living an inorganic, abstract existence that is controlled by technology and rigid routine, Animal Love ultimately demonstrates you do not have to travel to the deadly jungles of South America like Werner Herzog did in the 1970s to encounter captivating, if not somewhat debasing, human phenomena.