Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni and Hristos Passalis
Dogtooth is a film I had read little about; the snippets of description and words I’d heard bandied around included that it was this year’s Antichrist, that it was brutal, extreme, disgusting, involved violence, rape and incest and that it was Greek. Combined with one view of the trailer and the knowledge of a prize at Cannes I had a completely blurred idea of what this viewing experience was going to be. Having fully prepared myself for nastiness in one form or another I just prayed that at the least, I was not about to see a cat being decapitated by a pair of garden shears.
In a secluded house, a mother, her son and two daughters live in complete isolation. Their father leaves for work every day in his car and returns in the evening. The children are in their late teens and twenties and spend their time playing games of endurance and competing for the prize of stickers for their bed with the understanding that in order to leave the property you have to do so via car and that both leaving and being able to drive are only options once their dogteeth fall out. The children, who appear to have no names, are given tapes of their mothers’ voice teaching them words of which the meaning is wrong, limiting their vocabulary and preventing them from understanding the numerous words that could give clues to life on the outside.
In an existence entirely controlled by their parents, they have no consumption of media or culture of any kind, except home videos of themselves and one record (which they are told is sung by their grandfather). All branding is removed from any product, which leaves them with a striking natural world of plain colour and sole interaction amongst themselves.
The level of control is subtle but rigorously maintained. Their father owns a factory and has paid a female security guard to visit the house (blindfolded for the journey) to have sex with the son, seemingly to keep his natural desires in check and prevent any curiosity that could be borne from them. Planes fly overhead and the parents throw toy airplanes out of sight onto the ground leading the children to believe that planes fall out of the sky. The youngest girl has been given the task of learning medical care and treats each of them when they injure themselves, or each other, thereby eliminating the risk of needing to visit a hospital in an emergency.
The plot progresses by alluding to various ways in which the children may come into contact with the outside world, initially through their repeated attempts to talk to their brother who seems to have escaped, and who they believe lives directly behind the fence surrounding their house. With each close encounter to reality the parents get inventive to throw off the scent and the brother is swiftly taken care of with the explanation that cats are vicious human predators and have torn him to shreds.
The main contrast to their world comes through the way in which their parents live within their private time, from the way they listen to music, the sexuality in their relationship and the way they secretly communicate with each other. Their intentions towards the life they have chosen for their children is only suggested through one line of dialogue and the mother’s lifestyle is particularly interesting as she remains almost one dimensional through very sparse dialogue and restrictive camera angles.
It would be easy to lazily pigeonhole Dogtooth as a European art house take on the Josef Fritzl case, and while it borrows from that particular scenario thematically, the ideas behind this are very different and lead you to think far beyond the setting and premise.
In many ways, you are prepared for the likelihood of what happens next as the more controversial scenes take place, and instinctively you search for a natural frame of reference. Expecting impending doom I had fully geared myself up for nasty incestuous scenes along the lines of The Dreamers and was, thankfully, proven wrong. Continuously avoiding a pet hatred of mine of creating shock for shock’s sake, every moment that creates discomfort is surprising in the context of the story and plays with your preconceptions of cause, effect and motive.
Borrowing from a common documentary aesthetic of creating pause through static shots of external locations, you are given a break, but your experience of their isolation is increased. The use of sound throughout is one of the things I loved most about this film, the children rarely engage in traditional conversation of any kind and so dialogue is rare. In an incredibly beautiful and creative way, long moments of complete silence remove the usual effect of pausing for contemplation and instead this is replaced by a feeling of increased suffocation and claustrophobia.
The cinematography is absolutely stunning, with unusual composition and framing, and what would commonly be seen as a “dreamlike” use of pastel colour and soft focus instead replicates and reinforces the reality of their world of childish innocence with the illusion of safety and contentment.
Dogtooth fundamentally messes with your ideas of the naivety of childhood and basic human interaction by repeatedly throwing curveballs with how the children react to various situations their parents present them with. The sex scenes are particularly interesting in this way, and while the common reaction might be to find them appalling, their complete lack of emotion and functional nature make you think rather than evoke disgust. Without any knowledge of sexuality, common methods of intimacy, and with a designation of procedure over desire, you are seeing people at the height of what would normally be youthful lust instead experiencing what is nothing more than masturbation with another person.
In its warped and twisted way this film washes over you with its incredible beauty and minimal use of sound and lulls you into a false sense of security, at which point it batters you with ideas and concepts. Nothing is explained, nothing is justified and any statement that this is trying to make has hidden itself so deeply in various subtle tangents that I challenge you to be able to walk away from this film without your head spinning.
Whether I’m too warped by the films I’ve consumed to find this extremely shocking is something for me to contemplate, but I felt that every aspect blends into the story seamlessly. While at times I found myself peeking through my hands due to the graphic nature, I certainly wouldn’t define this film based on the shock value within, but far more by the ideas of prolonged innocence and the cocooned nature of the protection created by your parents during childhood.
Dogtooth is the epitome of everything I look for in a film, and is currently the front runner for my favourite film this year. I would be extremely surprised if anything knocks it off that spot in the next six months. — Charlotte