The Big Picture
- Arthur is a wise old soul who provides Oliver with the words of wisdom he needs to navigate his relationships and emotions in the movie Beginners.
- Arthur serves as a visual representation of the connection between Oliver and his father, Hal, and encourages Oliver to take action and have confidence in his relationships.
- Arthur’s presence is refreshing and genuine, as he doesn’t try to be overly cute or perform tricks for the camera, but instead is content with being by Oliver’s side and showing unwavering loyalty.
An old adage says that we engage in relationships in order to have a witness to our lives, and what better witness to have than a dog? They’re eternally loving, loyal, nonjudgmental, and they’re relatively easy to train as long as you treat them nicely. Knowing this, films have used dogs as important players for as far back as cinema began, from Rin Tin Tin to Lassie to Asta, all the way up to the iconic Brandy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But I would like to vouch for my favorite dog in all film, Arthur (Cosmo) in Beginners, for being the Platonic ideal dog that all other dogs should strive to be like.
What Is ‘Beginners’ About?
Beginners is the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist who has just lost his father Hal (the late Christopher Plummer in his Academy Award-winning role) to cancer; on top of this, he must grapple with Hal coming out of the closet as gay and how that changes his perception of his childhood, as well as how it’s affected him emotionally as an adult. At the same time, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress who moves to different locations frequently. The two form a relationship, which leaves Oliver hesitant and nervous, unable to deal with his history of leaving relationships early and being commitment-phobic. Arthur is Hal’s dog, and once Hal dies, Arthur is left in Oliver’s care. The two already have a strong bond, so rather than Arthur being a visual metaphor for the growth that Oliver goes through as a person, he is instead a wise old soul who firmly gives Oliver the words he needs to hear in order to know what to do.
Arthur Is a Wise Teacher in ‘Beginners’
Notice how I said “words.” You might think “wait, he’s a dog, dogs can’t talk.” First off, that’s what they want you to believe; more importantly, Arthur can “talk” via subtitles, and Oliver can actually understand him. For instance, when Arthur first goes to Oliver’s house and Oliver tells him they need to talk, subtitles show up that say “while I understand 150 words — I don’t talk,” and Oliver clearly understands that. Arthur is a delightful comic invention in a film that nestles comfortably between the mannered quirk of (500) Days of Summer and the cozy humanism of a Hal Ashby film. Amidst the jazzy score and the French New Wave inflected intercutting of solitary images to evoke Oliver’s wistful mind, Arthur fits right in as a surreal comic invention that highlights how tenuous Oliver’s connections to others are.
In keeping with this theme, Arthur functions as a visualization of the connection between Oliver and Hal. Hal is defined by his utter lack of shame and thirst for renewed life after coming out as gay, and Arthur usually speaks a philosophy that espouses going full steam ahead with things in life. When Oliver first meets Anna and is clearly wanting to give her his number, Arthur is there in the room saying “tell her the darkness is about to drown us out unless we do something right now,” pushing Oliver into action. Arthur’s perspective on human relationships is adorably nearsighted, so when Oliver and Anna start dating and have a lot of chemistry together, Arthur immediately jumps to the endgame by repeatedly asking Oliver “are we getting married yet?” It’s a cute running gag, but it does speak to the broader picture of Oliver needing to instill himself with more confidence in how he approaches his relationships in life. Considering that these events take place after Hal has died, one could make the argument that Arthur is imparting the lessons that Oliver should have learned from watching his dad live his new gay life, but didn’t. To paraphrase Citizen Kane, Oliver needed more than one lesson, and got more than one lesson.
Arthur Is Refreshingly Direct and Not Trying to Be Cute
One of the things that makes Arthur such a delight is how much he isn’t trying to insist on his own preciousness, the way dogs often have to for the camera. He’s not constantly snuffling people’s faces or doing asinine tricks, and he never has stupid subtitled jokes about wanting to tear up couches or hump other dogs. He is present and content with just being there and showing whoever is around him that he will stick by their side. Multiple times throughout the film, whether it’s Oliver giving him a tour of his house or going on ride-alongs, Arthur is fully engaged and happy to be there, being the ultimate wingman for Oliver. He’s even nice enough not to snitch on Oliver for engaging in some illegal graffiti tagging at night. The only thing he does that could be considered a not ideal behavior is that he’s very needy for Oliver’s attention. Oliver will try and leave him home alone and Arthur will immediately start to whine and bark, and Oliver will always go back and bring him wherever he’s going. Once again, this serves as both a funny bit and a reminder for Oliver that he shouldn’t run away from the legacy that Hal left behind, and also how strong the connection that Oliver has to his father is, even after death.
By far, the best attribute that Cosmo has as a performer is his eyes and his sense of direction. The oldest special effect is the human face, and dog faces are a close second, mostly due to how expressive their eyes can be in comparison to other animals. Cosmo’s eyes exude such warmth and comfort that the film has the wherewithal to build entire shots around him, including a closeup or two that would make Jonathan Demme proud. Furthermore, he is imbued with a sense of purpose in how he is very focused and measured in his movements, dutifully following Oliver around his house and respecting his property, or chill enough that Hal will allow him to stand on his sofa cushions, as if he is a top tier guard dog. Arthur knows himself well enough that he does not beg for love, but has all the love to give back simply by being present. A gimmick like Arthur being a personification of the connection between father and son wouldn’t work unless the dog in question could give off the energy of a warm hug, and Cosmo does that in spades, which is why he is truly the best boy.