Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dogtooth (2009)

Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Starring Aggeliki Papoulia, Hristos Passalis, Mary Soni, Christos Stergioglou

For whatever reason, awful parenting is a familiar theme in many films.  However, as bad as some film parents may be, rarely does it end up in the odd and dark places that Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos takes us in Dogtooth.  Its oddness became apparent from the quick description I got from my brother about a weird movie where the parents shelter their (grown up) kids and teach them misguided vocabulary.  But I was unprepared for just how odd this family is and just how dark the physical and mental abuse inflicted on these kids would be.  That being said, it is still an impressive piece of filmmaking that tells a completely unique story - a film that one may feel a little disgusted for liking, but liking nonetheless.  You just have to prepare yourself to be challenged going in and it might be a rewarding experience.

We are all blank slates at birth.  Throughout childhood (and beyond), we learn from our experiences in the world to become the people we currently are.  When imprisoned in the confines of one’s home your entire life, the experiences that influence what fills a person’s "slate" is vulnerable to the whims of whoever is in control.  That is the situation the three nameless (telltale sign that something is wrong with these people) children in Dogtooth’s family find themselves in.

It quickly becomes clear that these children have been cut off from the outside world to be molded into their parents’ mindless creations.  From the film’s first shot, the oddness of their parenting is undeniable.  The brother and two sisters listen to inaccurate vocabulary lessons that define “sea” as a wooden armchair and “excursion” as a strong floorboard.  These lessons are regular occurrences as one realizes later in the film; such as a “telephone” being salt and “zombies” a small yellow flowers, to these kids.  Pretty fucking weird, right?  However, the weirdness quickly descends into outright disturbing territory.

These parents control every aspect of their children’s lives.  They define roles for each to play in the family (one daughter is trained to be something of a family physician), set up competitions for their affection, and brutally punish misbehavior.  With their entire perception of the world beyond the home predetermined by their draconian captors, these poor people have no idea how terrible their situation is. 

Yet during the course of the film, a seed is planted that there is a different life outside the fence that may be better.  Of course, it would be a life that their 20 plus years of familial imprisonment would leave them dangerously unprepared for.   Despite the father’s best efforts to remain in control, it is the one aspect of the outside world he brings in who is responsible for planting these seeds.  In his sick control over his son’s sexuality, he pays a woman to come to the house (blindfolded, of course) to satisfy his son’s needs.  Yet this woman has not spent decades imprisoned within this house and has free will, which begins to "corrupt" the control one of the kids.

From this moment, Dogtooth gets increasingly violent and increasingly disturbing (without losing its regular oddness).  As the kids unknowingly enter a psychological chess match with their deranged parents, life in the house gets more and more terrifying.  When the lies do not keep the children in line, violence will.  These tactics work better on some of the children than others.

The oddness and psychological horror I have described in Dogtooth cannot do it justice.  For every strange oddity mentioned, there are probably a dozen others.  The strangest being when an old Frank Sinatra record is “translated” as lesson from their grandfather about the importance of loving Mom and Dad.  All the more disturbing, Lanthimos never allows the audience to get a glimpse of the reasoning behind the parents’ unorthodox (to put it nicely) and disgusting (to put it honestly) methods.  Every action is a mystery, and remains a mystery beyond the credits, which only heightens their villainy.

If this review has left you intrigued, despite its staunch art house credentials (which many shy away from, unfortunately) and challenging subject matter, I still feel obligated to provide further warning.  Dogtooth is a good film but very difficult to sit through.  The physical, mental and sexual abuse endured by these characters is blunt and horrifying.  Its violence is graphic (but never with a sense of “action movie” fun), as is its nudity and sex scenes (but never with a sense of “erotic movie” fun).  This is a brutal film with brutal themes:  mental abuse, incest, domestic violence, rape, corporal punishment, self-mutilation. 

Clearly, this is rough material.  But if you are prepared for what is in store and willing to endure a gut-punch of a movie, you will be rewarded with a work of art unlike any you’ve ever seen.  That was my reaction to Dogtooth.  I did not have a lot of fun while watching it and am in no rush to see it again, but it is something I am definitely glad to have seen.  There’s a chance that you may agree.  And also a pretty good chance that you will be horrified beyond belief and disgusted by my recommendation... but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Mark it 6.

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