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12 May 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 5:03am

Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is a film about life and loss – and a particularly empathetic rat terrier

Heart of a Dog feels more than simply human: a consideration of the relationship between life, death and love, that focuses on the passing of Anderson’s dog Lolabelle.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

I have long believed that dogs are not simply animals, but the purest expression of love on our grubby little planet. You don’t have to look far for proof of this. New evidence springs up daily: today, tabloids are covering a viral video of reunion between man and dog after two years of separation. It is a love that feels more elevated even than that between humans; I understand what Johnny Depp means when he says, “the only creatures that are evolved enough to convey pure love are dogs and infants”.

It is apt then, that Laurie Anderson’s dreamlike movie Heart of a Dog feels more than simply human: a consideration of the relationship between life, death and love, which focuses on the passing of her dog Lolabelle. In Lolabelle’s death, we feel echoes of the death of her mother, and her husband (Lou Reed), though Anderson herself is never so literal. Her attachment to Lolabelle is a powerful relationship in its own right, as well as a microcosm for Anderson’s human relationships, her relationship with herself, and a broader, spiritual relationship that is never truly pinned down; “dissolving, like moonlight, in a cloudless sky”.

She flits between subjects with ease and rhythm – connecting terrorism, parenting, loss, surveillance, language, philosophy, divorce and death with somehow coherent threads. Her voice is musical, the original score captivating: in many senses, this is more of a visual album than a movie. Anderson weaves illustration, photographs and speckled footage (entirely taken by herself) on screen, but her eerie spoken word stories and textured instrumentals are what allows it to feel unified yet disparate, and are the true strengths of the film.

Anderson constantly questions her own process: “I want to tell you a story about a story,” she begins, before recounting a horrific accident she had as a child, an anecdotal incident she often recites to new friends. But, during the act of one retelling, the horror of the incident for others around her hits home. She realised, “the thing about this story was that I had only told the part about myself. And I’d forgotten the rest of it. And that is the creepiest thing about stories”.

Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Lolabelle (Getty)

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There is something creepy about Anderson’s movie, which is filled with ghosts – of friends, parents, lovers, strangers, bystanders in 9/11, artists, and, yes, dogs. But the more ghostly it gets, the more hopeful it feels. “When Lolabelle died,” Anderson says, “finally, I saw it. The connection between love and death. And that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

Lolabelle herself is a mysterious figure in this piece. Anderson tells us she believes her rat terrier “learned the great skill of empathy” on a camping trip in Canada, with her previous owner, a divorcing man trying to figure out how to go on. Lolabelle paints, and sings, and plays piano. She’s adaptable, and social, and has her own tabs in West Village stores. The only thing she doesn’t seem to be able to do is talk.

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Anderson tells us at the beginning of the film that when her mother died, she tried to communicate with animals on the ceiling. Confused, scattered phrases left her mouth as she passed. “It’s been my privilege and my – my honour, to be part of this experiment – this experience.” After 9/11, Anderson spends some time away from New York with Lolabelle, hiking in California, spending hours only in each other’s company. It was “an experiment to see if I could talk with her”, Anderson tells us in her wistful tone. But the gorgeous scenery of their trip proved distracting. “What happened was, more or less, beauty got in the way of the experiment.” If life is an experiment, Anderson’s film implies that it is one constantly put off by overwhelming moments of grief, love and beauty.

Heart of a Dog is showing at selected cinemas in London from 20th May.