Friday, October 21, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: “Dogtooth”

If you ever think your family is weird, go see Dogtooth.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a completely bonkers, totally mad social satire that can be compared to a baseball bat, but one that actually has a spike embedded on one side, ready to split your head in two. It’s a work of breathtaking subversion that would be outright obscene if it didn’t have a point to make.

In an unnamed Greek city, a father has kept his family unit so tight that he has complete control over their lives. His three adult children, a son and two daughters, have never left the large, minimalist, walled country estate in which they were presumably born, since they have no knowledge of the outside world. Think of it as Gormenghast in miniature. Through their parents, they learn that the world’s most dangerous animal is a cat, that they have a brother living on the other side of the wall that they have never seen or heard from, and that the world outside is so filled with peril that traveling via vehicle is the only way to stay safe. Whenever a plane flies overhead, they think it’s a toy that, when it tumbles down, is up for grabs. They are taught that the word “sea” refers to what we call an armchair and that the word “zombie” refers to a bright yellow flower. (You don’t even want to know what the word “keyboard” denotes, but when you do find out, it’s hysterical.) 

The house seems to be stuck in a time-warp circa 1982. It has a TV but no cable, and despite the fact that the film takes place in the present day, the most modern contrivance in the house is the VHS player. The only phone (rotary, of course) is kept in a vault in the master suite, only used when the mother calls out and the children think she’s talking to herself. Occasionally, father plays their “grandfather’s” music, which is actually Frank Sinatra, with the father translating “Fly Me to the Moon” in family-friendly lyrics that would constitute propaganda had this been an ideological state.

Occasionally meandering into this little slice of suburban hell is a guard at the father’s office named Christina, who he brings blindfolded to the compound to have sex with his son. What he doesn’t know is that she starts to trade sexual favours with at least one of the daughters, too. The children occupy their time exercising daily in the pool, reading medical textbooks, and discovering what all those parts of the human body are supposed to do. Any upset to the balance created by the father is met with swift, shockingly violent retaliation. One of the first examples of base, primal anger erupts in an argument that hints at darker pathology underneath, and the violence these people inflict on themselves and not only others is shocking and an excuse to call child welfare services (if you hadn’t done so already). If the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, then it only follows that any sociopathic tendencies may have been nurtured by or lorded over the clan by the father himself.

Did I mention that this film is also a comedy?

Notice that I have not called any family member by name. That’s because no one is called by name in the whole film, except for Christina. It’s oddly dehumanizing and yet completely appropriate that we not identify anyone with proper markers, and only in relationship to one another. It would have been too obvious to choose Biblical names, and not in keeping with the film’s sociopolitical undercurrent to make this a Garden of Eden retread.

French poster
Lanthimos, in the DVD commentary, stated that he came up with the idea for Dogtooth when he considered the future of the family unit. In particular, he considered to what extent parents would protect the “traditional” model of the family as a whole. By extension, one might be able to deduce that “family” in its nuclear form might die out if the more extremist conservative factions of society believe it to be so, and it’s almost as if Lanthimos is thumbing his nose at such a belief. His thesis is that the family itself cannot be corrupted because it is comprised of human beings, who are fundamentally flawed, corruptible (irrespective of outside influence), and will find other avenues in which to express their darker aspects and baser instincts. 

Dogtooth is filled with unsettling perversions that are uncomfortably funny, all of which flow not from corrupting influences such as politics, mass media, religion or sexual libertines, but from the sheer fact that containing Man’s baser desires only allows them to surface in a more concentrated and dangerous form.

Although the film doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc, there’s an exceptionally rendered sense of suspended time and place that compels one to keep watching, or that is so repellant that more sensitive audience members would run screaming from the theatre, in its own way a new kind of realist horror film. It is, in other words, one of the most provocative and essential films of our time.

Dogtooth won numerous prizes at various film festivals around the world in 2009, including the prestigious Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Its accolades also include a surprise Academy Award nomination earlier this year for Best Foreign Language Film. The film is long available on DVD through the increasingly edgy distributor Kino International, and you can find out more about the film on its website