Thursday, January 27, 2011

Digging "Dogtooth"

I knew "Dogtooth" by reputation before I had a chance to watch it, and cheered it's inclusion on this year's list of nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It's a film of taboo topics, featuring graphic sexual scenes, bloody violence, incest, and several varieties of abuse. The assumption was that the traditionally conservative voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would find "Dogtooth" too extreme to single out for recognition. However, I'm not surprised they were ultimately won over.

"Dogtooth" is a portrait of a very peculiar Greek family. There is a father (Christos Stergioglou), a mother (Michelle Valley), and three adult children - an older daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), younger daughter (Mary Tsoni), and a son (Christos Passalis). We learn none of their names, and the children do not appear to possess them anyway. They all live together in domestic comfort, but it soon becomes clear that the parents have never let their offspring leave the enclosed compound where they live, and enforce strict discipline as to every aspect of their behavior, leaving them developmentally stunted. With no other sources of information available, the parents feed the children a steady diet of misinformation and deranged fantasies. Passing airplanes are toys that sometimes crash into the yard. "Telephone" means the salt shaker, and "zombie" is a type of flower. At one point the mother announces that she will be giving birth to two additional children and a dog.

We never learn the motives of the parents, though the film documents them going to elaborate lengths to maintain their stifling little world. There is a constant tension in the household, where the strain of keeping up the act may be starting to weigh too heavily on the father and mother. They rule the household with the constant threat of gut-wrenching violence, but the children, especially the older daughter, are becoming restless and acting out in bizarre and destructive ways. And then there's the outsider, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), who works as a security guard at the father's place of employment, and is occasionally paid to come to the house, blindfolded, in order to attend to the sexual needs of the son. It's Christina's unstructured interactions with the older daughter that introduce new stimuli into the lives of the deprived children, and disrupt the control of the parents to horrifying effect.

"Dogtooth" is meant to be a metaphorical fable, exploring the the mechanics of tyrannny and deprivation, and their effects on both the subjugated and the subjugators. There are too many holes in the premise for the audience to accept the situation of the family as anything but an artificial construct. For instance, the younger daughter is shown to have access to medical texts and other books, so the whole business with the vocabulary words is unlikely. However, the characters are genuine enough. The way the adult children behave is often frightening and alien - barking like dogs on command, employing brutal violence in minor spats, and reacting abnormally in sexual situations - but they retain enough human impulses to gain our sympathies. Aggeliki Papoulia is especially good as the older daughter, who wants desperately to rebel against the parents, but has no idea how to go about it. Her efforts are hampered both by her lack of knowledge and the utterly warped context of what little information she does have.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos does a wonderful job of turning a friendly domestic home, full of soft pastel colors and warm lighting, into a nightmarish hell from which there is no escape. His characters seem trapped in his frames, squeezed in and ill-fitting, sometimes with their heads and limbs lopped off. Stills from the film could be family snapshots, except that none of the characters ever smile or laugh. During a party scene late in the story, the contrast is starkest. All the accouterments of a joyful celebration are there, from decorative balloons to the childrens' party clothes, but the daughters dance because they are ordered to, and with a petrified stiffness that anticipates terrible punishment if they stop. The sex scenes that have caused such a ruckus are cold and clinical, about the least prurient depictions of sexual activity I've ever seen, though certainly disturbing for other reasons.

There's a strong urge to compare "Dogtooth" to the work of European auteurs Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, who are known for similar acts of extreme cinema sadism. Lanthimos doesn't seem nearly as bleak and fatalistic, though, which I'm thankful for. And though everything is played dead serious, he also has a much better sense of humor. I find his style and his filmmaking sensibility closer to Roy Andersson, the Swedish filmmaker who gave us the pitch-black apocalypse comedy, "Songs From the Second Floor." I hope the Academy Award nomination encourages to Lanthimos to make more films, because I'd love to see more from him. I'll just have to remember to stretch first, in preparation for all the cringing.

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