We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
Kynodontas / Dogtooth, 2009
Prix Un Certain Regard – Yorgos Lanthimos
Prix de la jeunesse
“The news that the film Dogtooth by Yorgos Lanthimos is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film goes far beyond the world of cinema, arts and culture. It concerns the whole country, its people, the new generation of artists who follow the motto “Yes, we can do it” during difficult times.”
George Papandreou, Greek Prime (2011)
So, people have started to warm to Greek film-maker Yorgos Lanthimos, now they have been swept up by The Favourite. Not everyone, of course. Prior to that, audiences were polarised by The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I kind of understand the indifference. A little bit. The national Greek fiscal crisis has had similar reactions – with those outside of the great, noble country, just not sure what to make of it all.
Lanthimos’ second feature, and first collaboration with writer Efthymis Filippou, was seemingly so out there, that many were simply mind-blown to the extent their assessments ran a mile. Truth is, Dogtooth is a masterful, twisted motion picture. One that cranked up the engine of Greek cinema. Lanthimos has one hell of a mind, for sure, but the subject matter buried within Dogtooth’s strange beauty is hypnotic.
The film took the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered. And was then nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. An incredible feat, putting Greece right back on the film map, and sending shivers of unique optimism across the country.
So important was the appearance and success of Dogtooth, Lanthimos was labeled a kind of movie pioneer. Bringing a relevant freshness to Greek films, heralded up there with the best works of Theodoros Angelopoulos. Comparisons to film-making greats like Luis Buñuel and Michael Haneke are extremely flattering too, but Lanthimos has since proved his vivid worth.
Those who want to pick the bones, might cast our minds back to 1972, when the Mexican film, The Castle of Purity, had a similar plot. Such nitpicks are not my bag. Though I am a little bias, having married into a Greek family. But my adoration for Lanthimos goes beyond the Greekness. He’s an exciting, smart film-maker, and his fan-base is rightly increasing as we speak.
Dogtooth came from a notion of science fiction. A kind of other worldly vision. The film has certainly evolved since its conception, but you can see subtle echoes of sci-fi in the architecture and camerawork. Lanthimos has, of course, carried those technical gushes with him. An advocate of cinematic space and framing, you might call him.
And as thought-provoking his work has continued to be over the years, Dogtooth really takes the biscuit. In terms of, not just glimmers of genius, but also an unsettling jolt to the senses, while remaining compelling and rather innovative.
Dogtooth is hardly a family drama in the classic sense. There’s a husband (Christos Stergioglou), a wife (Michelle Valley), and three children (Angeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Christos Passalis), that’s a given. I don’t even think dysfunctional covers the spectrum of this family’s issues. The parents, the father in particular, have an apparently air-tight regime, in which the three children will have zero contact with the outside world. That is, they have never stepped foot beyond their house and huge garden’s enclosure.
Now, these children are pretty much entering adulthood. Late teens at best. Their brains washed of the globe’s extensive functions we take for granted. They have been conditioned that they are safe unless they leave – which they cannot do until they themselves lose a dogtooth. Insane, yes, but these three lost souls, a son and two daughters, can’t be measured by intelligence or common sense. They are beyond that. This is all they know.
It’s an almost unfathomable situation to be in. And as we bare witness to this deprived lifestyle, Lanthimos has the creative gusto to make this all the more believable. And real, cringe-worthingly real. You’ll have a frown on your face, and sure to miss a few breaths, for this is an extraordinary set-up, seeing it with your own eyes before you even comprehend it yourself.
The three of them entertain themselves with games of endurance, made up on the spot. Early on they debate the new game – who can hold their fingers under the hot tap the longest – whether or not to use more than one faucet, or how to time it. Rewards are given, accordingly, for good and bad behaviour. And they are taught the (improper) meanings of words: ‘pussy’ is a huge light; ‘phone’ is the table salt dispenser.
As the son has developed a sexual appetite, the father pays a female security guard at his factory, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to come to the house (blindfolded), and have sex with him. And this is where the father’s acute attention to detail falters. When Christina wants some oral satisfaction herself, she turns to the older daughter. And for the price of a headband, the daughter is on all fours with her face in Christina’s crotch.
Obviously, there’s a palpable engagement here. But we accept this is the way decisions are made for these sheltered children. Not that that makes it any less weird. The older daughter’s hunger is not for sex, though, but rather to be able to watch VHS tapes that Christina has on her. When the sister watches them in secret, she later acts out some of the scenes – like pretend punching herself a la Rocky IV. There are consequences though. When the father finds out, he punishes both the daughter and Christina. How, I will not give away here.
Definitely a film that lays out alternative perceptions of home schooling, over-protective parents, and even a layered depiction of adolescence itself. The surreal impact of Dogtooth is a blunt one, scattered with surprisingly accessible symbolism. Events are peculiar, sometimes unsettling, unflinchingly compelling. Your own sense of intrigue is tested to the limits.
How can they believe they have a brother over the fence? Or that a mere house cat is a vicious predator? Lanthimos’ set-up accommodates your wildest curiosities. The abstract strand of horror comes from that very trick. Dogtooth really is a daring experiment as far as cinema goes. An audacious, chilling movie at times, but also deadly funny. Not roll around on the floor laughing, but a kind of absurd, or even spontaneously candid way.
The controlled sexual deviance takes a non-comic turn. The discomfort hardly lets up, as the father’s pathological restraint delves into what we in the outside world would call taboo. The children are essentially unknowing prisoners in their own home. One in the middle of nowhere. Raised on a conformity to isolation, and mentored through years and years of lies.
Dogtooth is a cinematic triumph, whether because of all this, or in spite of it. There’s certainly an eerie sort of relevance here. Parents abusing their children’s minds; stripped of any kind of independence; harnessed in the means of being impressionable or ambitious as they develop. Once the elder sister sways towards a outwardly urge, you cling for the bonkers drama to shift in that direction.
And that very drama and comedy tangle up perfectly. When the girls are performing a (rigid, unimpressive) dance for their parents’ anniversary, the elder daughter starts to dance the routine from Flashdance (having now seen the film). Later in the swimming pool, she startles her brother by attacking him with her arms clapping together as though a shark (from Jaws). I’ve seen this film maybe four times now, and I laugh every time. These are genuinely funny moments, seeing the influence of cinema, or just the world beyond, on these so-far shackled beings.
No wonder Greece can be proud of their cinema revival. Yorgos Lanthimos executes a miraculously macabre and uncomfortable viewing experience. Dogtooth truly is an inventive chunk of modern cinema. The writing is wickedly biting and sharp. For the most part, the children speak like they are reading from a Greek phrase book – the kind of effective deadpan nature that would make The Lobster so brilliant.
Sure, Dogtooth is not an easy film to watch. For more reasons than mentioned here. And I have little time for those citing animal cruelty or unmerited violence. Exteriors and interiors are framed with an immaculate, crisp skill throughout. Lanthimos has crafted an uncompromising, question-filled portrayal of contemporary family life. Whether it is the life we know or not, Dogtooth has all the magnetism, guts, and ambiance of a modern masterpiece.