At the end of The Trial, Kafka’s Joseph K says to himself that he is dying “like a dog,” that is, disgracefully. “It was as if the shame would outlive him.” In Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s protagonist dedicates himself to “the service of dead dogs” and “the honor of corpses.” He transports to the dump the bodies of unwanted animals who have been put down, and discovers that the workmen often have to break the dogs’ now rigid limbs in order to fit them into the incinerator. He takes over the disposal job himself and wonders why:
For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway? For himself, then. For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing.
Dogs and dishonor. There are all kinds of other, less fraught ways of thinking of dogs, but I mention these instances as a means of getting at the untranslatable title of the extraordinary recent Mexican film Amores Perros, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga. The film, González Iñárritu’s first apart from his many short commercials and a television pilot, gathered prizes at festivals last year and opened in New York this spring. It was nominated for a Golden Globe award and for an Oscar for best foreign film, the first Mexican movie to be up for this accolade in twenty-six years.
It has an English title too—Love’s a Bitch—but it is significant that no one uses it, as far as I can tell, either here or in the United Kingdom. Literally the words mean “dog loves,” where “dog” is an adjective, as in “dog days.” But the suggestion is of disgraceful loves, loves that are a mess, loves that treat you the way you wouldn’t treat a dog. The phrasing also hints at a touch of celebration lurking in the mess, rather after the fashion of New Yorkers boasting, as they used to, about how awful the city was, so incalculably worse than any other city, the capital of insult and injury: this stuff (this place) is so disgraceful that its disgrace confers a form of distinction.
The characters in Amores Perros are in love with other creatures, human or canine, but they are mainly in love with their own troubles, their capacity for confusion and damage. We could also paraphrase the title as screwed-up loves, or loves that screw you up. A poor young man loves his brother’s wife, or at least he desires her and makes out with her and wants her to come away with him. Sibling rivalry, surely, a form of what used to be called triangular desire, desire directed by what someone else possesses. Yes, but that is just what the young man is busy denying, and he would say he can hate his brother without needing to love the wife. We would have to agree that the brother makes it easy, being pretty hateful anyway. A rich magazine owner buys himself a beautiful fashion model and sets her up in a posh apartment, the contemporary version of what Mexicans call la casa chica, the little house, the mistress’s domicile. Does either of them know how fragile and claustrophobic their life is going to be, and is that what they are looking for? And finally, in the most complicated of the stories told in this film, a teacher turned revolutionary turned hit man helplessly loves his now grown-up daughter, and by extension and in time-lapse the family and the life he abandoned long ago. All he can do is leave her banknotes under a pillow, and a weepy message on her answering machine.
These people certainly cause most of their own misery, and that of others, but the film doesn’t invite us to judge them—or excuse them, which would be another form of judgment. The title helps here, since it reminds us that the film’s subject is loves rather than lovers, the illusions and errors of loves that treat you like a dog or worse. The closest movie analogue I can think of for this tone, in spite of the frantic pace and relentlessly contemporary style of Amores Perros, is Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, another study of Mexico City as a place of danger and destitution. The terrible social conditions in both films are to be deplored, and if possible redeemed, but more immediately we have to take them as the characters’ habitat, the cards they have been dealt.
In Amores Perros people in business routinely order the murder of a rival or a partner, the young man I’ve just mentioned has his brother beaten up by gangsters to teach him a lesson, and the mean brother himself is anxious to raise his game by moving on from sticking up drug stores to sticking up a bank. It’s an essential part of the atmosphere of the film that we should feel the business murders are both shocking and ordinary, and that the beating up of the brother should seem stupid rather than immoral. When the brother does finally stick up a bank, he gets killed. It’s clear that the commandments about killing and stealing and false witness and coveting are more than relevant here; not clear at what point in these lives it would have helped to recite them. Love as obsession or indulgence is a distraction from the remorselessness of the world, but also finally an exacerbation of it. It is because these people are living such swift and crazy lives, are so caught up in violence as a habit and climate, so far out on the edge of what can be ordered or controlled, that they are so accident-prone, or to put that slightly differently, that accident seems to be the central feature of their existence.
This is a formal effect, the result of the writing and directing of the movie, not a fact about current life in Mexico City—or if it is such a fact, no other movie has yet seen it or caught it in this way. Amores Perros has its slow moments, for my taste it gets a little mushy toward the end, and although there is plenty of humor as well as horror in the work, González Iñárritu can’t quite manage both together, as Buñuel does. But then who can? Very few films create, as this one succeeds in doing, a fresh and individual sense of a complete world, and allow us to experience this sense as if it were our own. This world is governed by something less than destiny and something more than chance. The film doesn’t just tell us that Mexico City has become a very violent place—we knew that anyway. It generates an aura of violence which goes well beyond any individual, nameable violent acts: a beating, a knifing, shootings, holdups, dogs killing each other.
The film makes us intimate with the idea of peril, the threatened life. Everything seems dangerous in this movie, as if danger itself had become hyperactive, in a way that not even the most dangerous actual places suggest. It feels dangerous to go out, dangerous to stay at home, and sheer folly to get into a car. If a person rolls around her apartment in a wheelchair, you wait for her to fall over and compound her already grievous fractures. And if for the moment none of the characters comes to any physical harm, there is always the frenzied verbal abuse that can flare up at any time, out of who knows what depths of forgotten angers and resentments.
There is something of the horror-movie effect here, where we constantly expect the worst to be creeping around every corner. But the worst is well focused in horror movies; it has a name and a legend behind it; we know that the dead creature in the bathtub isn’t really dead, and that no monster is ever terminally buried. Here it feels as if ordinary life itself has been infected, not by identifiable risks like robbers and bad drivers and jealous lovers, but by something more metaphysical: a general rise in the damage rate, like an epidemic, or a mysterious shift in the mortality statistics.
The fast editing, the frequent use of a hand-held camera, the bright colors, the thumping soundtrack are all part of this effect, but it comes mainly from the plotting of the film, and the skillful management of its three central stories, told sequentially but also always flickering in and out of each other, so that we can attend to any one of the stories only by waiting for or remembering another one. The film opens with a hectic chase. Two young men, pursued by a gang, have a bleeding body on the back seat of their car—the body of a dog, although we don’t immediately realize this. The chase ends when the car crashes into another vehicle at an intersection, and a title—“Octavio and Susana”—announces the long narrative flashback which will loop around to just this point in time. Octavio is the young man in love with his brother’s wife, Susana. He also borrows his brother’s dog for dog-fights that people bet on, and begins to make a packet of money, because this otherwise amiable domestic dog turns out to be a champion killer in the ring. This sequence ends when Octavio’s longtime opponent in the dogfighting world shoots Octavio’s dog. Octavio knifes his opponent and takes off in the car, wounded dog on the back seat.
Another title—“Daniel and Valeria”—takes us into another story. Daniel is the magazine owner and Valeria is his model-mistress. We have glimpsed her before in the interstices of the first story, and her image is pasted on the wall of a building as a gigantic advertisement. We have seen him too, and his wife and family, and we know he has a mistress, we just don’t know who she is. They take over their new apartment, and Valeria gets into the car and goes off for some champagne. It’s her car that Octavio and his friend crash into at the intersection. The rest of this story follows out Valeria’s botched surgery on her badly injured leg and her recuperation from it, the deterioration of her relationship with Daniel, and it involves her little dog getting lost beneath the floorboards of the apartment, and ultimately the amputation of her leg, so that she patrols her life looking more and more like Catherine Deneuve in Buñuel’s Tristana. The accident ends Valeria’s modeling career, and Daniel, after much screaming and shouting, seems set to return to his wife.
A new title—“The Goat and Maru”—promises a new story, but we don’t at first know where we are, since some new characters appear: a seedy police chief (is that what he is?) and a nervous businessman. They’re riding in a car, but where are they going? They are going to hire Martín, alias El Chivo, the Goat, to do a murder. We’ve seen Martín before, several times, and caught pieces of his story. He’s the bearded vagrant who wanders around the city with his rickety handcart, trailed by a pack of scruffy dogs. We’ve seen him shoot a man in a restaurant, the victim’s blood seeping in close-up into the huevos rancheros; we’ve seen him touched by the obituary notice of a woman around his own age, and we’ve witnessed a little scene at this woman’s funeral, which seems to indicate that she was his wife. Now the policeman gives us the full biography. Martín left his wife and child to become a revolutionary, a sort of premonition of Subcomandante Marcos, except that unlike Marcos he went to jail, and came out to become both a tramp and a hitman. Maru is the daughter he so helplessly loves. Martín accepts the new job and is about to kill his man on the street when the two cars we have already seen show up at the intersection and crash: we return, that is, to this precise moment for the fourth time. Martín takes all of Octavio’s money, which he finds in the crashed car, rescues the wounded dog, and nurses it back to health.
This is where we enter a moral universe which weirdly resembles that of Coetzee’s Disgrace. The protagonist of that novel doesn’t defend his behavior in sleeping with one of his students, but he does defend his desire, and he does it through a memory of a dog, a male whose owners beat it whenever it got excited by the proximity of a bitch in heat. “This went on until the poor dog didn’t know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide.” The man’s daughter asks what the point of this tale is. He says, “There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired,” and goes on to explain that in his view a dog will accept the justice of punishment for misdeeds but not for desire. “No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts…. What was ignoble…was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature.”
In Amores Perros the dog’s nature has been channeled by a competitive human culture. Having rescued Cofi, the domestic pet become dog killer, Martín leaves him with his other dogs—he knows nothing of the creature’s fighting career. When Martín returns from his excursion, all the other, much-loved dogs are dead, lying around Martín’s shambles of a dwelling like a portrait of a massacre. Martín, weeping, takes his gun and is about to shoot Cofi through the head; but then pauses, puts his gun down, angrily rebukes Cofi as if he’d chewed up a precious rug, and sets about cremating the dead dogs.
This is where the movie gets mushy in my view, indeed threatens to turn into another movie altogether. Martín, drawing the obvious parallel, wonders why it’s all right for him to kill humans but not all right for Cofi to kill dogs, and gives up his career as a hit man, contents himself with imprisoning and taunting the object of his most recent assignment rather than bumping him off. What’s interesting and powerful in the dog massacre scene, it seems to me, and what quickly gets lost when conventional morality is restored to the world of the film, is not the analogy between human and canine killing, but this particular canine killing in its own right as an example of what Yeats called murderous innocence. Cofi is a perfect, worrying counterpart to the remembered dog in Disgrace. For him there is no contradiction between following his nature and doing as he is told. Or rather he discovered a lethal piece of his nature when he was encouraged to use it. If we reintroduce the human analogy at this stage, it looks rather different.
The title Amores Perros is metaphorical, but the dogs in the film are not metaphors, and they are not only sardonically juggled plot devices. These are dog-driven stories, dog-crossed lovers, but the dogs are chiefly pieces of a world, objects of displaced affection, like Valeria’s pet, ways of making money like Cofi, remnants of an attempt to change the world, like Martín’s tribe of strays, material instances of a macho appetite for competition and violence, like all the unhappy dogs in the dogfights. I think of an old Mexican joke. It relates to cock-fighting, but is just as applicable to dogs. A man about to place a bet asks a friend which creature is the right one, el bueno, literally the good one. The friend tells him and he puts a pile of money on the indicated bird. The bird is promptly torn apart by its opponent, and looks as if it never stood a chance. The man turns to his friend and says, “I thought you said that was the good one.” “That’s the good one,” the friend says, “but the other one is a son of a bitch,” un hijo de la chingada, literally a son of the woman who was fucked.
The characters in Amores Perros know how to ask the right question, and are never deceived about goodness, but this doesn’t save them from their mistakes. Perhaps they’re not interested in being saved, since everything suggests that their mistakes are who they are. Love treats them like a dog, but they wouldn’t have it otherwise.