Sit up, roll over, beg for freedom
Dogtooth, drama, not rated, in Greek with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles One of the fascinating and strangely enjoyable things about having a toddler is that you get to affect another human being’s perspective on the world through a series of lies and fables that you construct. Whether it’s to educate them, keep them safe and healthy, to retain a certain magic and, or for your own entertainment, you have a limited window during which you can make their world whatever you want it to be.
With Dogtooth (recently nominated for an Oscar in the foreignlanguage film category), Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos ponders how long this window can remain open. Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley play two parents who raise their children in captivity. There isn’t really another word for it: they have surrounded the house with a tall wall and forbidden their children to leave the grounds, even though they are now adults. The “kids” are taught that the outside world is full of dangers such as man-eating cats and airplanes that could fall from the sky, and they remained fixed to their parents’ bizarre rules and education. The film opens with them receiving a recorded vocabulary lesson that provides words with incorrect definitions. An excursion, for example, is a particularly durable kind of flooring material.
Dogtooth is the kind of movie that uses its own vocabulary and teaches you the language as you go along. It’s clear that the parents love the children, perhaps even dearly so, but their definition of love is unique. With no real connection to the outside world, the kids — the son (Christos Passalis), his older sister (Aggeliki Papoulia), and his younger sister (Mary Tsoni) — develop
relationships that often resemble childish sibling rivalries but also serve as substitutes for real adult relationships. The father occasionally brings a security guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) from his work home, so his son can experience sex, but that is the only contact the three kids have with other people. Even TV night is made up of watching home movies.
This highly unusual film (which won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival) is told through an equally unusual visual style. The camera often remains perfectly still just below eye level, slightly resembling the camerawork of Yasujiro Ozu. The tableau frequently lacks depth, and this flat appearance may remind viewers of some of Stanley Kubrick’s work. The overall sensation is that of watching a stage play or even observing dolls in a dollhouse. Characters can often be seen clearly when they sit, but when they stand, their heads are cropped from the frame. If they wander off-screen, the camera doesn’t follow them. Indeed, you may be able to count on both hands the number of times the camera moves. All of the sounds are natural, and the only time you hear music is when it is played by a record player or guitar.
The major drawback is that the story can feel one-note. There is a satisfying narrative arc, but the film is tonally similar from beginning to end. Adventurous viewers will thrill at watching the absurdity taken to higher and higher levels, but once you buy into the concept itself, you’re not bound to be shocked by any new developments. Lanthimos maintains an emotional distance from his characters, so it’s difficult to care much for them, outside of pity for their circumstance. The film is exceedingly compelling and breezes by quickly, but I’m not sure it adds up to much beyond a conversation piece. Of course, that’s still more than many movies add up to.
I’m inclined to say that, if the film falls into any genre, it’s a very, very black comedy, mainly because the literal or symbolic use of dogs often caroms into outright absurdity. When the father goes to see if his pet dog has finished training, the trainer’s explanation of the regimen too closely mirrors the father’s education for his children. In one sequence, the father even makes his kids — and, for some reason, his wife — get on hands and knees and bark. His punishment for one unruly child resembles the way you’d punish a dog by rubbing its face in its mess. Don’t forget about those pesky man-eating cats. And, of course, there’s the film’s title, which references a tooth that the children must grow before they can leave the grounds.
Yes, there are bones of comedy buried in this backyard. But then, how can such a movie not be horror? It is, in many ways, a torture film. It shows emotional torture rather than physical abuse, but those who have seen Michael Haneke’s or Takashi Miike’s more harrowing material will find tonal and thematic similarities here. One scene near the end — in which the two sisters stand side by side and perform a dance routine — also seems to pay visual homage to the twin girls in The Shining, while also showcasing a routine that is played for laughs.
It’s impossible not to feel that things will end poorly for this family, but Lanthimos avoids an ending that mires you in despair. Some viewers may even find beacons of hope in the ambiguity of the final act. It all depends on how you define such concepts as hope or despair.