Based on JR Ackerley’s doggy romance and hand-drawn and painted by Paul and Sandra Feininger, My Dog Tulip is a labour of love twice over.
My Life As A Dog by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Making its debut in France in 2009, it’s taken two years for My Dog Tulip to swim across the Channel, but it’s well worth the wait. Not only is it the last film to be released in the UK featuring the late Lynn Redgrave, but with Christopher Plummer’s arch and breathless narration there’s a very British gravitas to this gracefully lighthearted animation. Based on the autobiographical homage to his beloved Alsatian Queenie, J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip is a love story, a homage to the Ideal Friend he never found in human form. The fact he inherited Queenie from a sometime trick heading to prison is excised from the book, and despite Ackerley’s pioneering openness about his homosexuality, the animated sexagenarian is given a no-sex-please-we’re-British makeover, rather like Queenie’s own floral soubriquet.
But My Dog Tulip is no puppy love story. With copious defecations ranging from ochre to umber, canine copulation and even vulva vaselining, My Dog Tulip seems squarely aimed at adults. Of the dog-loving variety. With Joe’s private life carefully under wraps, there’s little tussle in the way of human relationships – a very British stand-off with his sister Nancy, a succession of unseemly veterinarians and a run-in with the grocer’s wife after Tulip leaves a present outside their stall. Ackerley’s self-conscious and cantankerous, but with Tulip his woes disappear, and it’s with her that he finds the happiest 16 years of his existence, his true love.
“Unable to love each other, the English turn to dogs” J.R. Ackerley is quoted at the beginning of My Dog Tulip. And perhaps it was never more true than for the writer himself. His search for an Ideal Friend, a life-giving jug of companionship and intellectual stimulation failing in humankind, he turns to dogs. Although his friend and mentor E.M Forster did warn him, as he continuously cruised for tricks in unsalubrious parts of London, against looking for gold in coal mines. But as Ackerley develops a relationship with his dog Tulip, enjoys a rare communication between man and beast, his cup runneth over and his jug of Ideal Friendship takes the form of an Alsatian, of Tulip.
Like the children’s choir innocently singing “You smell my arse, I smell yours” My Dog Tulip gets down and dirty with dogdom, scatalogical nuggets of canine truths in a shiny wrapper of animation. It’s less an attempt to humanise Tulip than a willingness by Ackerley to become a proper dog, his heart warmed by her dogged optimism, touched that she should find the world so wonderful. And the communication between them is inspiring. When he visits the lethargic Pugh, an ex-army captain and now chicken farmer, Joe keeps Tulip unleashed so that she may have the opportunity to display her intelligence. And when she needs to exercise her bowels in the middle of the night, he recognises the unusual urgency of the pawing. Only too late to prevent the steaming discharge, so amicably placed as far from her master’s nose as she could manage. And there’s an almost salacious relish as he cleans up after her, a matter-of-fact devotion of mutual dependability.
Tulip barks almost constantly, and when sister Nancy comes to stay causing Joe and Tulip to retreat to his bedroom, the German Shepherd refuses to let the interloper near. But as clever vet Ms Canvenni diagnoses, voiced by Isabella Rossellini, Tulip is in love with him, her clamourous outbursts testimony to how ferociously protective of him she is. The feeling’s mutual, and Ackerley attempts to navigate the choppy waters of making Tulip’s life one of canine fulfilment, attempting to marry her with another Alsatian on Putney Heath. After rejecting dogs below Tulip’s class and failed attempts with the stocky but pusillanimous Max, Ackerley eventually abandons her to a stray mutt for a moment of crepuscular romanticism.
The romance in Paul Fierlinger’s animation, however, is almost exclusively reserved to the master and his dog, Ackerley confessing he would have killed himself for his true love Tulip and fretting that he’s letting her down, lessening Tulip’s confidence in him. She’s not a bitch to bite the hand that feeds her, but there is, in this New Yorker film, a vaguely backpage cartoon feel, like a feature-length Love Is… about one man and his dog. It’s neither maudlin nor mawkishly sentimental, but My Dog Tulip does seem rather boastful of its salacious vigour. Whether its charming if scant simpleness can sustain both dog-lovers and cynophobes alike is unsure, but it’s more than a puppy dog’s tale.
My Dog Tulip is released in the UK on 6th May 2011