After attempting suicide, a suburban woman assumes the behaviour and mental identity of a vicious dog to escape her narcissistic husband who is left to tend for their neglected children. This is the intriguing satirical premise behind Marianna Palka’s genre-defying fourth film Bitch, yet unfortunately the film is largely a misfire. Tonal inconstancies, bizarre character decisions and a chaotic narrative hamper the promising concept and the film ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity.
We meet Jill (played by Palka herself) on the brink of insanity following a failed suicide attempt. Jill’s husband Bill (John Ritter) brushes off her pleas for help, instead prioritising his corporate office job and mistress/secretary over the well-being of his family. That is until one night when Jill goes missing and all her housewifely responsibilities are thrust onto Bill. To no surprise, Bill doesn’t cope well. He doesn’t even know the names of his children’s schools and his job security starts to come under threat at work. The family eventually find Jill in the basement naked on all fours, covered in faeces and growling like a dog. Jill’s sister Beth (Jaime King) quickly shows up to offer a helping hand as Bill struggles to cope with his wife’s transformation and with his responsibilities as a parent.
Bitch begins promisingly. One stand-out scene sees Bill frantically delivering his kids to school and throwing himself to the ground in a frenzy as he attempts to perform ordinary parental tasks. The sequence is accompanied by Morgan Z. Whirledge’s wild, discordant score which mixes abstract jazz with soothing harps along with other competing sounds that exacerbate the disarray on screen. Jill’s metamorphosis is convincingly and terrifyingly played by Palka, but her convulsive, animalistic movements are shot in claustrophobic close-ups which fail to capture the magnitude of her insanity.
Though initially effective, the persistently chaotic score quickly becomes maddening and the unlikeable, irrational characters start to grate. Bill’s refusal to allow Jill to spend time in a mental facility is a decision which makes little sense and the kids give an equally bizarre, uncaring reaction as they find their mother’s transformation amusing instead of shocking. Consequently, it’s difficult to emotionally connect with characters whom you simply don’t believe in or understand. The only redeemable character here is Beth but she is disappointingly marginalised – which is perhaps the point considering she adopts Jill’s maternal role.
The film’s deconstruction of patriarchal family politics suffers from some jarring tonal imbalances. Veering from psychological horror to domestic comedy to absurdist fiction, Bitch never decides what kind of film it really wants to be. The third act also reaches for an emotional, sympathetic conclusion which feels unearned and misplaced after 80 minutes of narrative inconsistency.
Bitch’s uncompromising nature may strike a chord with some viewers, but it’s likely to leave the majority feeling alienated by its tonal confusion and obnoxious, inaccessible characters.