Credit: Bande a Part/Atelier de Production/France 2 Cinema/RTS Radio Television Suisse/SRG SSR
by Emily DuGranrut Featured Film

Dog on Trial — Laetitia Dosch [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 30, 2024

Dogs occupy a unique, almost sacred, space in our lives. They are not technically human, yet they embody qualities — loyalty, affection, intelligence — that resonate with us on a profoundly human level. Aristotle once relegated animals as beings without rational souls, classifying them closer to objects than humans. But anyone who has gazed into a dog’s eyes understands that they reflect the very best parts of humanity. This philosophical debate about animals as mere “things” is at the heart of Dog on Trial, actress Laetitia Dosch’s directorial debut. The film challenges us to reevaluate our relationships with dogs and the broader implications of how we categorize living beings. Are they simply creatures of instinct, or do they possess a deeper, human-like consciousness?

Dog on Trial centers around Avril Lucciani (Dosch), an idealistic but consistently unsuccessful Swiss animal defense lawyer. Despite directives from her supervisors to take on more serious cases, Avril agrees to represent Cosmos (Kodi), a dog accused of biting three women. One of whom, Portuguese cleaner Lorene (Anabela Moreira), has suffered serious facial scarring. Cosmos’ human, Dariuch Michovski (François Damiens), is a cantankerous social outsider who faces legal action, while Cosmos is at risk of being put down.

As Avril defends Cosmos, she argues that the dog is an autonomous entity that should be tried in its own right, marking the trial as the first legal proceeding against an animal since the Middle Ages. The film features a series of comedic and philosophical riffs on the idea of a dog’s legal status, including debates on animal ethics and the canine soul, and even a device designed to make a dog “speak.” Avril’s narration, running intermittently throughout the film, adds a knowing, albeit sometimes intrusive, commentary. As the case garners widespread attention and becomes a national cause, Avril grows closer to Cosmos and friendly dog handler Marc (Jean-Pascal Zadi).

Dosch’s first attempt at directing is a mostly successful blend of courtroom drama, humor, and philosophical exploration. The screenplay, co-written by Dosch and Anne-Sophie Bailly, is packed with witty dialogue and thought-provoking ideas, but sometimes struggles to balance its comedic and more serious elements. While Dosch’s narrative techniques (including Avril’s internal monologue as narration) and directorial choices keep the audience engaged, the humor can feel too manic and eager to please, and the philosophical discussions, though ambitious, can come across as heavy-handed when it attempts to be direct with its arguments, such as when Avril makes a cringeworthy comparison between dogs and enslaved people. The performances in Dog on Trial are likewise something of a mixed bag, but the standout is clearly the canine actor Kodi as Cosmos. Kodi’s expressive range, from soulful looks to rambunctious antics, adds a layer of emotional depth to the film’s central debate. And it should come as no surprise that Kodi won this year’s Palm Dog, the coveted prize awarded to the best canine performance every year at Cannes. 

But while there’s no denying that Dog on Trial can feel like a disappointment in some regards, including in its hit-or-miss humor and mostly surface-level philosophical discourse, it’s still an undeniably entertaining and moving project. It offers plenty enough charm, wit, and emotional resonance to paper over some of its weaknesses, and it’s easy to imagine it will inspire many viewers to question their perceptions of animals, urging people to see them not just as pets, but as beings equally deserving of empathy and justice as us. Dog on Trial is a stealthily bold attempt to shift our view of man’s best friend from simple loyal companion to fellow sentient being, no trial de novo needed.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 4.