Film review by: Witney Seibold
Surely all adults have had this experience: Have you ever been talking to someone, and they’re clearly interested in you as a sexual partner, but you’re not necessarily so interested in them? They come onto you, and you find yourself flirting back, even though you’re a little disgusted with yourself? You end up making out with them, or even taking them to bed, even though the attraction has not increased, and you’re only having sex because you’re really horny? And after you feel a little dirty, but also a little turned on, but still dirty?
That seems to be the way Giorgos Lanthimos‘ “Dogtooth” makes you feel. A little put off, a little intrigued, a little turned on, a little disturbed, a little exhilarated, all the while your brain is racing through a dark, sticky woods of unusual nightmares you never realized you had. It’s one of the best films of the year.
The film is about what can only be described as a social experiment whose origins lay shrouded in mystery. A dark-eyed unnamed patriarch (Christos Stergioglou) manages at some sort of textile mill in the wilds of the Greek countryside. He goes home every night to his wife (Michele Valley) and his three adult children, who are only ever referred to as “the son” (Hristos Passalis), “the younger” (Mary Tsoni), and “the eldest” (Aggeliki Papoulia). These children have never been allowed off of the property, have never talked on a telephone, have never seen a TV show (although they do watch home videos), have never had any sort of social exposure other than the immediate family. The ground outside of the house is dangerous to trod on, and a car must be used to leave. Airplanes are tiny in the sky, and occasionally crash, in tiny form, in the garden. A reward is given to the child who finds it.
The children speak in their own off-kilter language, dictated to them by their mother. Nouns are jumbled up. The children play odd, benign games of endurance with one another. They are rewarded with stickers. There is often talk of other invented brothers or sisters who live just beyond the fence. They often die or are resurrected depending on how the children behave. Very occasionally, there are outbursts of extreme violence.
To placate the son’s sexual urges, pa has hired the aid of a local security guard (Anna Kalaitzidou). She and son are locked in a room, and they have mechanical, unpassionate sex. Indeed, there is little passion in this oddball, insular universe. No one smiles, no one laughs. They are pleased and placated, but never passionate about much of anything.
“Dogtooth” feels like a comedy of manners for it’s first few minutes, as we explore the quirky and odd machinations of these people’s particular madness. We are tempted to giggle at the weirdness, even though we’re never really sure as to why dad has constructed this world in the way he has. Just when we begin to wonder about the mutability of human behavior, the film explodes into an odd bit of violence, making us realize that we’re serious here. There is now blood and pain and death in this world, and it’s all part of a plan that we can never know.
Eventually, in addition to the violence, and the subtle emotional torments being exchnaged, “Dogtooth” also become uncomfortably sexual. The hired security guard, who is not part of this universe, begins to break rules, and brings an odd sexuality to other members of the family, as well as the terror of American pop culture; when the eldest accidentally watches “Rocky” and “Jaws,” she begins acting out in weird ways.
Lanthimos has not just made a film of mental malleability; he has created a harrowing cult experience. We begin to see family structure, laid bare and exposed in all its protracted absurdity. We see the horror of manners dissected and rearranged and resurrected in a mutant form. And we see real sex on camera, and what looks like real violence; when a child is beaten over the head, it looks like actual harm is being delivered, adding to “Dogtooth” an unsettling Mondo quality. This is a film about real pain in a strange part of the mind. And it makes you feel fascinated and kind of icky all at once. There is no doubt that it is a powerful film.
“Dogtooth” was released in New York for a short while, and, has, only through the hard work of certain Los Angeles programmers, made it to L.A. as well. It has been listed on several top-10 lists (including my own), and has been now nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. This is no mere oddity, but a strange, almost surrealist anthropological essay on human behavior. It may come to your town, too. Seek it out.