By Don Simpson | February 28, 2011
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer(s): Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia
A film with such a masterful, yet infinitely absurd command of images and language as Dogtooth is like a wet dream for me as a film critic. Dogtooth epitomizes a sublimely dark yet quirky cinematic tone that only European filmmakers (with the exception of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick) seem able to capture. The blogosphere is ripe with undeniable comparisons between Dogtooth and certain films of Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and Luis Buñuel (I also notice a very strong kinship with the films of Federico Fellini). I suspect that I will have a lot of fun writing this review, but I do not think I can truly keep all of the spoilers at bay for those of you who have not experienced Dogtooth yet. So, proceed with caution…
This is as good of a time as any to point out some misconceptions that I had about Dogtooth after seeing two images that seem to be most commonly associated with the marketing of the film. The first is of two young women, dressed almost identically in oversized juvenile dresses, standing in such a way to recall the ghostly twins from The Shining, but once the scene from which that image is borrowed gets moving, the absurdity goes far beyond Kubrick’s wildest dreams. (Think: Flashdance — a strategic reference, by the way — if Jennifer Beals was high on crack and speed during the filming.) The second is of a young woman bleeding from her mouth, which gives this demented dark dramedy the false air of a violent and bloody horror film. (Note: there is some violence and blood, but I would not classify Dogtooth as a horror film.)
In continuing with my more ambiguous comments…Dogtooth is about social control theory and milieu control: manipulating and controlling communication within a group, thus isolating the group’s members from the surrounding society; physically restricting the members’ contact with the outside world; crippling the members’ ability to make rational judgments about information; threatening and applying punishment for wrongful behavior, while rewarding compliance; controlling the individuals via needs satisfaction, so if an individual’s needs are met, there is no point in undesired behavior.
Being that the repressive faction in Dogtooth is a father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michelle Valley), and the repressed subjects are their three children, a son (Hristos Passalis), an older daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), and a younger daughter (Mary Tsoni), all fully grown young adults—the control is taken one step further—no one has been granted a name. The family resides in a large, affluent home secluded behind a very high wall and a locked gate; there is a large green lawn and a swimming pool. The telephone (not to be confused with salt) remains hidden in the parents’ bedroom and the television set is only used to watch the family’s home videos (which they have watched so many times they know the dialogue by heart).
The children have no idea of the existence of an outside world (only the father ever leaves the confines of the walls, driving to the factory where he functions as a manager); they are told stories about human-devouring cats and an estranged brother (who was purportedly ostracized for his disobedience) who lives presumably in a constant state of fear on the other side of the wall. The children have been taught the wrong definitions for words via homemade educational tapes. Basically, any word that comes from outside of their world is assigned a new meaning: “sea” means large armchair; “zombie” denotes a yellow flower; “telephone” is salt; “excursion” refers to a flooring material; “motorway” means a very strong wind; “carbine” refers to a beautiful white bird; “pussy” is a big light (as in: “The pussy is switched off and the house is plunged into darkness”).
The children have also been instructed that passing airplanes are toys that occasionally fall into their yard. They wholeheartedly believe that the fish they eat for dinner magically appear in their swimming pool. They are told that the albums that they listen to are recordings of their grandfather singing, but they are actually Frank Sinatra recordings (their father’s translation of “Fly Me to the Moon” is a personalized message of propaganda promoting their unique family values). The children occupy themselves with an endless series of competitive games and endurance tests that serve solely as a distraction from them contemplating what lies behind the borders of their estate. They eagerly await the coming-of-age experience that will arrive once one of their “dogtooths” drop. And speaking of dogs…the father teaches all of the family members (even the mother) to get down on all fours and bark like dogs (to keep the human-devouring cats at bay). The mother is supposedly pregnant with “two children and a dog,” however, if her three existing children behave themselves, they may be spared further siblings…well, the dog is nonnegotiable.
The father brings home Christine (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard from his factory, to have sex with the son. Christine (who must be blindfolded while being transported to their home) is just as disinterested in sex as the son, but they go through the motions nonetheless; she is much more interested in the older daughter, with whom she trades cheap jewelry for illicit licking. (The children trade favors amongst themselves in exchange for licking legs, elbows and ears.)
In an odd sort of way, father does know best, because once the influence of an outsider (Christine) is introduced to the family, his tyrannically manipulative control of the social structure is quickly unhinged. The family’s (implied) Hobbesian social contract is shattered and everything promptly goes all kinds of ape shit.
The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (he co-wrote the script with Efthymis Filippou) never provides any explanations of the father’s motives, making Dogtooth all that much more unsettling. In Lanthimos’ sardonic hands, Dogtooth plays out like the nightmarish fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, yet the moral of the story is directed towards parents not children. Most parents filter the information received by their children, controlling what movies they watch, what Internet sites they visit, what books they read, what toys they play with, and what foods they eat, but Dogtooth purposefully exaggerates this parenting strategy in order to bring into question the legitimacy of the repression. When and how should children be kept from experiencing the real world? What effects does this parental protection have on these children later in life?
Though politics and religion are never directly discussed, Dogtooth can also be read as an allegory for the political and religious spectrums, for example, the way certain political pundits (Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin) or religious leaders (Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson) create an environment of fear and paranoia in order to foster the spread of their warped ideologies. Their strategy is to dissuade their audience from believing any other sources of information in order to enact more stringent control over their audience; then their audience quickly evolves into a bunch of tunnel-visioned zombies (and I don’t mean little yellow flowers) who have completely lost their ability to question their sources of information. It cannot be beneficial for anyone to have their resources for knowledge and information limited so severely or have such an unquestionable belief in so few sources, mainly because that relies on the belief that the information source they rely on represents the absolute truth. Call me pessimistic, but I am certain that no one knows the absolute truth.
Lanthimos’ static wide-screen compositions have a strangely disorienting and cartoonish effect, especially when the heads and limbs of characters are purposefully (and non-traditionally) cropped. The cinematography is often framed like family photographs of a family that is not quite right. The images are illuminated by a dreamily diffused light, as if the film is just a nastily absurd dream. Lanthimos makes no effort to make Dogtooth appear to be realistic and his visual techniques (which further distanced my reality from that of the film) admittedly made it much easier for me to digest the content of the film. I think it is also important to note that Lanthimos’ use of violence is never gratuitous, it is always necessary and quite purposeful (for example, the son stabs a wayward stray cat with garden shears only because he fears for his life and he is protecting his family from a ravenous monster with a murderous penchant for human blood).
I saw Dogtooth well after my favorite films of 2010 list was published, but I would be hard-pressed not to amend that list to make room in the top three for this one. Being that I have only seen one other film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 83rd Academy Awards (Biutiful), I do not feel fully qualified to name Dogtooth (which won the Un Certain Regard category at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival) as my favorite Oscar-nominated foreign film of 2010; nonetheless, I will be happier than a pig in shit if it happens to win.