Reviewed at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.
Rampaging out of Greece flashing some serious crazy-eye, Giorgos Lanthimos’ outrageous and excellent “Dogtooth” offers dark (and just as often darkly funny) commentary on overprotective parenting. Or is that isolationism at large? The film’s set in and scarcely budges from the rambling countryside estate where three children dawdle like they’re trapped in the dog days of their summer vacation. Only they’re not children — they’re in their late teens and 20s. They don’t have names, beyond designations as the elder daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), son (Hristos Passalis) and younger daughter (Mary Tsoni). They don’t need them — they’ve never left the walled-in grounds of their home, and beside their mother (Michelle Valley) and father (Christos Stergioglou) seem to have only ever met one other person, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), who works at their father’s factory and is brought in each week to sexually service the son.
There’s no TV, no radio, no internet and no awareness of the outside world beside what the extensive, fear mongering mythology created by Mom and Dad. It comes across as the extreme conclusion of the type of warnings parents throughout time have used to scare their young into obedience — “If you keep making that face, it’ll get stuck that way forever!” The only way to safely leave the grounds is in the car; a cat is a dangerous animal that will tear you to pieces; you become an adult and can go only after your canines fall out and are replaced for the second time — so, never. They’ve also schooled the three in an alternate vocabulary that’s part euphemism (“keyboard” is their word for female genitalia) and part falsified definition for terms likely let slip accidentally (“telephone” for salt shaker). When all facts come from you, you can dictate the reality of your world — and so the father insists a Frank Sinatra song the clan listens to is sung by the kids’ grandfather, and “translates” it into an affirmation of family and obedience.
The children spend most of their time playing odd, invented games — competing to see who can hold their hand in hot water the longest, or inhaling anesthetic and racing to be the first to return to consciousness. While adults in the grip of crippling arrested development all but own their own genre these days (“Step Brothers” being a kind of apogee), there’s something terribly, mesmerizingly convincing about “Dogtooth”s trio as half-formed hothouse human beings, wandering around in bathing suits and sundresses, childlike and docile as cattle, but each manifesting his or her own form of stir-craziness.
Lanthimos, who also co-wrote “Dogtooth” with Efthymis Filippou, gives us no sense of time passing — this could be an endless loop of summer days, the white walls, green lawns and grubby pool an eternal, repressive Eden. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatatakis likes to frame fixed shots so that the children loom out the top, like limbs shooting past the confines of outgrown garments. Before there’s any actual incest — and “Dogtooth” has some shrinkingly disturbing sexual sequences — there’s the metaphorical sort. For entertainment, at night, the family watches videotapes of themselves doing the same thing nothing in particular they’ve done all day, footage apparently so familiar that the rapt youngest daughter can recite along with the action on screen.
What made the parents choose to keep their kids in such dictatorial, shrinkwrapped isolation? There is, gratifyingly, no easy explanation offered. They don’t impose this quarantine on themselves, talking on the phone behind the locked door of their room, and spicing up their love life with porn. When the father goes out to retrieve a dog he’s purchased and left with a trainer, he’s told he can’t take the animal home yet, that he’d interrupt the process of shaping the dog into the obedient pet it could be. He stares at the dog in his cage. The dog looks back at him. The dog, at least, will eventually be deemed appropriately conditioned and released. The children, who are only being shielded from the outside world, have no such end date to look forward to.
While sex is what sets in motion the events that burst the horrific bubble in which the “Dogtooth” denizens live, it’s blockbuster cinema that’s the unexpected apple in the garden. It arrives in the form of two loaned VHS tapes that lead the eldest daughter to become the second sheltered innocent I’ve seen on screen in the last few years (the first being Bill Milner’s character in “Son of Rambow”) to be spiritually transported by a Sylvester Stallone effort. What can’t that man do? Well, besides provide a pat ending. “Dogtooth” closes with an ellipsis that suits the film’s stubbornly insoluble, enduringly provocative world.
“Dogtooth” will be released by Kino later this year.
[Photos: “Dogtooth,” Kino, 2009]