Sit up, roll over, beg for free­dom

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Robert B. Ker For The New Mex­i­can

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

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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.

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