Bitch film review Sundance London 2017: the beast in me

A depressed woman goes canine in Marianna Palka’s latest

A marriage quite literally goes to the dogs in Bitch, in which a put-upon woman snaps under crushing pressures and adopts the psyche of a ferocious canine.

Marianna Palka (Good Dick) writes, directs and stars as Jill. Bitch opens with her attempted suicide by hanging, disrupted by the chandelier her noose was fastened to collapsing to the ground. Her fear she’ll do something else destructive grows, hardly helped by four unruly children and an estranged relationship with Bill (Jason Ritter), the family breadwinner at a business now going through downsizing; he’s introduced mid-cheating on Jill with a co-worker.

Their neighbourhood is plagued by dogs barking through the night, with one canine in particular continually stalking the family’s garden. This dog eventually makes its way into the house, coincidentally on the same day that Jill’s psyche finally breaks. The family later finds her in the basement, naked, on all fours and growling.

Despite the plot-driving metamorphosis, Bitch isn’t a horror film, nor is the strange condition ever successfully explained away with a medical diagnosis. Perhaps the most accurate way to describe this tonally scattered oddity is as a magical realist dramedy, where the focus is less on the finer details of the transformation and more on the ramifications on the family cleaning up the mess – and mess is accurate, because there is a lot of excrement in this.

Bill, rather than getting Jill the help she needs elsewhere, keeps her in the basement, viewing her condition as strictly an act of aggression towards and a burden on him. Cue a riff on 80s Michael Keaton vehicle Mr Mom, with Ritter getting very broad comedy beats to play as he (incompetently) picks up the massive workload he’d dumped entirely on Jill after their second kid was born, eventually learning something of a lesson.

There’s much to admire with Bitch’s absurdist deconstruction of patriarchal family politics, though more streamlining might have helped the attempted emotional catharsis.

Bitch was seen and reviewed at Sundance London 2017.