Submitted for Academy Award – Foreign Film consideration by Greece is the brilliant and unsettling Dogtooth (Kynodontas) (2009), a sometimes darkly sinister, sometimes oddly farcical study of an insular family living what they regard as a safe and secure existence in the unstable modern world.
The three ‘children’ (though they all seem to be in their early-mid twenties) never leave their spacious country home – they’ve been instructed that everything past the fence that surrounds the home is abject chaos and danger. Only the father can leave to manage the factory he makes his living at. Even venturing a few feet outside of the fence can only be done by the father, protected inside his car. Certain horror awaits any others.
The children pass their time inventing games for one another, usually physical challenges like holding their breath underwater or playing blindfolded hide-and-seek with Mom. Any words they might possibly hear that describe life outside the home are immediately redefined by the parents: ‘the sea’ is the leather armchair in the living room; a ‘highway’ is a strong wind. One of the daughters happens across the word ‘cunt.’ Mom (Michele Valley) assures them it’s a large lamp – ‘the cunt switched off, and the room got all dark.’ ‘Shotgun’ is a beautiful white bird.
The father (Christos Stergioglou) pays a woman from his factory, a young security gate keeper, to satisfy his son’s urges, pre-empting the boy’s asking about it himself. All cats are indescribably evil and vicious, he instructs – they’re from Outside. A ghostly other ‘brother’ haunts the other side of the fence, omnisciently judging the three and reporting their progress to Dad. An English recording of ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ they are told, is their grandfather singing, and the lyrics are conveniently translated by the father as a paean to family and the sanctity of Home. The security girl (Anna Kalaitzidou) surreptitiously lends the eldest daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) some videos, in exchange for furtive sexual favors, and the daughter starts acting out what she’s learned from ‘Rocky’ and ‘Jaws,’ while the younger girl (Mary Tsoni) makes free-associative attempts to figure out what licking is for. During an anniversary party, the eldest daughter dances for the guest-of-honor parents in an erratic and exhausting whirl; all I could think it to be, transfixed, was a Diane Arbus version of ‘Rite of Spring.’
There are certainly Americans who understand how family dynamics are macro-manipulated by government regimes or religious extremists to infantilize and enslave their subjects or followers. But I think Europeans feel it far closer to home – from Caligula to the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, in the jaundiced portraits of corrupt incestuous royalty painted by Goya, from Franco to Hitler to Ceausescu and Milosevic, all those horrors, past and potential, happened right over there, three or four hours away. When Americans portray it, it’s aberrant and foreign to our own experiences – controlling psychotics and ‘family annihilators’ on ‘Law and Order’ or ‘Criminal Minds;’ outlandish exceptions, pumped up for dramatic effect. We make ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Natural Born Killers.’ Europeans make ‘Prime Suspect,’ ’Red Riding,’ and ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ And ‘Dogtooth.’ They understand what an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric that all can be, how vulnerable each and every one of us is to being reared on, or reverting to, that kind of savage moral ambivalence.
Director Giorgos Lanthimos’ most impressive feat is making the whole thing so compellingly entertaining. The exploratory wonderment and amusement of the ‘children’ is easy for us to identify with – we remember how that felt for our own younger selves. The father is endearing in many ways – he releases large fish into the luxurious backyard pool, knowing the children will recognize it as A Bad Thing from The Outside, and dons goggles and a spear gun to ‘protect’ them from the interlopers. He often breaks into song for their admiring benefit. Lanthimos never overtly points out the psychological incongruities – we reach our own conclusions about whether this family is just hermetically eccentric or irretrievably sinister. The gorgeous cinematography and novel-but-not-showy composition from DP Thimios Bakatakis illustrates a world that any of us would be perfectly comfortable in – there’s no Coen Brothers-ish feeling of distortion or exaggeration. His images are minimal, artful, crisp and clean.
As a dark satire of home-schooling and family values (as many read it) or as a comedic-yet-cautionary tale of larger humanistic portend (as I and others glean), ‘Dogtooth’ is well worth your viewing time. The film has done very well at film festivals – I’m confident it will get an Oscar nomination, which will hopefully lead to re-screenings. It is not yet, but will be, available on Netflix.