If you've doubted Laurie Anderson's Renaissance woman credentials, her great new autobiographical film Heart of a Dog will convince you otherwise. She directed, wrote, scored, coproduced, coshot, and did the voice-over for this elegiac tone poem about love, death, and dealing with loss. That it also contains perhaps the best footage of a dog playing piano and painting that you will ever see may be a bonus to some.
Now, you don't have to be a canine-lover to appreciate Heart of a Dog, but it obviously helps. Though Anderson was married to legendary rocker Lou Reed (who died in 2013 and to whom this film is dedicated), her truest love, the movie implies, was her rat terrier, Lolabelle. Beginning with an animated sequence (drawn by Anderson), the auteur describes a dream in which she gives birth to her pet—after she'd had the pooch surgically implanted inside her.
What follows is a poetic meditation on Anderson's relationship with Lolabelle and coping with her maladies and death—as well as the death of humans integral to her life, including the artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Threaded through this touching portrait are dreamy observations about government surveillance (a longtime obsession), the emotional toll of 9/11, the Tibetan Book of the Dead's usefulness in times of mourning, and Anderson's problematic feelings about her mother, whom she didn't love.
Much of the story is related through slow-motion footage of Anderson's family's home movies, which capture her Illinois upbringing, with post-production effects adding a grainy, bleached poignancy to her narrative. Death provides a fertile soil out of which love can blossom, Anderson reiterates, and she conveys this thought with extremely moving images, music, and anecdotes. An achingly beautiful, morose mood permeates Heart of a Dog, bolstered by Anderson’s complementary, violin-heavy soundtrack.
This is not a conventional (auto)biopic by any means, because Laurie Anderson never does anything straightforwardly. One expects greater attention given to Reed, but his presence surfaces mainly in the movie's last four minutes, as his lugubrious yet hopeful ballad “Turning Time Around” soundtracks the end credits, underscoring Heart of a Dog’s drifting atmosphere of poignant yearning.