Dogtooth comes from the warped mind of Yorgos Lanthimos, who divided audiences with last years brilliantly wonderful, if not disturbing film The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Dogtooth is Lanthimos’ second feature, but is perhaps the one that garnered him the most attention. As despite its controversial subject matter, it won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Award.
The Greek Critic, Dimitris Danikas, gave the film a rating of eight out of ten, and characterizes it as “black, surreal, nightmarish.” He believes that Dogtooth is as important for Greek cinema as Theodoros Angelopoulos’ 1970 film Reconstitution. And Danikas stated that Dogtooth’s Academy Award nomination as “the greatest Greek triumph of recent years.”
The film critic, Alistair Harkness, hailed director Lanthimos as “a bold new voice on the world cinema scene, someone who might soon be elevated to a similar position as those twin pillars of Euro provocation: Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke,” Certainly, Dogtooth provokes in the way a Von Trier and Haneke film would, making for a deeply disturbing viewing experience, that leaves you wondering just exactly where and how far this will go.
Even Robert Ebert complimented the film, and stated that Lanthimos had a “complete command of visuals and performances. His cinematography is like a series of family photographs of a family with something wrong with it. His dialogue sounds composed entirely of sentences memorized from tourist phrase books.”
The film is about a couple (Christos Stergioglou & Michele Valley), and their adult son (Hristos Passalis), and two adult daughters (Angeliki Papoulia & Mary Tsoni), who live in a fenced compound. The children have no knowledge of the outside world. Their parents say they will be ready to leave once they lose a dogtooth, and that one can only leave safely by car. None of the characters are ever named, they are simply known by the roles they play within the family.
The children entertain themselves with endurance games, such as holding their hands under hot water. Aside from these games, the trio spend their days listening to endless homemade tapes, that teach them a whole new vocabulary. Any word that comes from beyond their family abode is instantly assigned a new meaning. For example, the word ‘zombies’ are little yellow flowers. The parents reward good behaviour with stickers, and bad with violence. And the father brings Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) to the house on occasions, who is paid to relieve the son of his male urges.
The children believe they have a brother on the other side of the fence, to whom they throw supplies. A cat enters the garden, and the brother kills it, in a brutal fashion. The parents take this opportunity to spin a tale, that the cat killed the other brother. Christina’s interactions with the older sister causes issues with the others, and when the older sister performs oral sex on Christina for a video tape cassette, this has consequences. The father finds out, and all hell breaks loose.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure about what to make about Dogtooth. It’s not an easy film to watch, with its full body nudity, incest sex scenes, sudden and unexpected bursts of violence, and surreal, odd pacing. After my viewing experience, I felt numb and dazed about what I had watched. There were certain scenes and imagery that had burned themselves into my mind.
For example, the cat being killed by a pair of garden sheers, or the older sister attacking the brother with a hammer in the middle of night, claiming it was another cat breaking into the house. When it came to analysing and deconstructing Dogtooth, I realised just how clever it was in its criticism of the family unit, extreme parenting, and the impact of individuals living such sheltered lives.
The film deals with a range of topics, from the dangers of creating a “perfect family”, to the disillusions of upper middle class life, to metaphors for the dangers of repressive families and governments. The film implies that for any of these relationships to work, the individual must forego intelligence, and blindly follow the institution. Although this sort of obedience is contrary to human nature, perhaps suggesting that this is the reason that twisted individuals such as Josef Fritzl, and cult leader Jim Jones, can get away with hideous crimes for so long. Indeed, Dogtooth came out just a year after the Fritzl case came to light, which makes the film slightly more chilling when viewing it.
The film discuss the implications of the lies that we are told, to maintain status quo, and the appearance of stability and normality within the family unit. As children, we grow up accepting that our parents and guardians have our best interests at heart. Dogtooth explores the abuse of protecting a child from outside influences, denying them the simplest of human instincts and denying their freedom to explore the world. The film shows the consequences of telling young children lies for their own safety, and how in turn that can make them fearful of the world and impact their understanding about life.
As the subject matter was so claustrophobic, the choice was made to set the film in as big and expansive a house as the production could find. Complete with swimming pool, and enormous garden, and it helps relieve the tension somewhat. The cinematography and framing is expertly done, with every shot being perfect. The glorious sunshine makes this film appear light and bright, a contrast to its dark subject matter. By deciding to direct the film in such a dry, manner, as if just trying to capture the events that take place, was a bold move by Lanthimos.
I also applaud the complete absence of music, which helps ground the film in a uncomfortable reality, despite the film being about an extraordinary subject matter. The actors did a great job at acting in the emotionally detached manner that was required. And they all deliver an excellent performance. Overall, Dogtooth is a very original and very dark satire, which I am not sure whether or not I want to revisit anytime soon.