mon 09/12/2019

Dogtooth | reviews, news & interviews

Dogtooth

Dogtooth

It's all Greek: contemporary family drama has the dark density of myth

Even when baring gifts: three siblings keep it in the family in Dogtooth

A father keeps his three adult children in a state of retarded development. They are deprived of books, education, television, indeed denied any access to the world beyond the electronic gates marking the perimeter edge of their known territory. In the place of knowledge is disinformation, disseminated on tapes. The sea is a leather chair, a zombie is a yellow flower, a vagina is a keyboard. And so on. In all this the mother is quiescent, complicit. The father is an absolute patriarch, the source of all morality and law. Dogtooth, a film by Giorgos Lanthimos set in contemporary Greece and winner of last year’s Un Certain Regard at Cannes, feels as if it’s based on a Greek myth Ovid carelessly forgot to write down.

Not that it’s anything like the Greek sagas that normally find their way onto the big screen. The father has contrived to people a universe of his own creation, unquestioningly accepted by its inhabitants. In one scene, he simultaneously translates Sinatra crooning “Fly Me to the Moon” as an affirmation of the love flowing through the house. The children think of the nameless singer as their grandfather. Visitors from beyond the garden fence are explained away: the planes which fly overhead are no more than toys like the one the children play with; the kitten which invades the garden is a ruthless killer which must be warded off with barking. Presumably barking is also a sign of madness in Greece. A propos of dogs, they are told that they can leave the house once their dogtooth has fallen out, and may drive only when it grows back.

dogtooth2Still, it’s a watertight system, until an outside agency brings corruption from beyond the walls. The father has chosen to introduce his son to sex. A security guard from the factory where he works is hired to initiate him, but naturally what she brings in her wake is insecurity: her desires – specifically for oral pleasuring – are not remotely met by the son, so she bribes one of the daughters to satisfy her instead, who in turn innocently passes on the secrets of cunnilingus to her sister.

A sense of brooding anxiety and nameless danger hangs suspended over the house. The sisters chloroform themselves into unconsciousness. They play at life-saving in the swimming pool. The blindfold games they enact (pictured) are all too visual a symbol of their powerlessness. The son still creeps into his parents' bed at night. Meanwhile, the father bullies and pummels in random acts of punitive violence, but once curiosity has sprouted in one of his daughters, a vengeful chain of events is triggered.

Dogtooth reads like a dark reimagining of The Truman Show. Here too, as in the cosy all-American paradise constructed around Jim Carrey, the inhabitants are kept in a state of infantilised innocence. But the satirical target here is not the brain disease caused by television, and the public’s addiction to manipulative storytelling. What it is trying to say is slightly harder to divine. Lanthimos is certainly resistant to explaining all in interviews. Is Dogtooth a parable about political tyranny and the enslavement of entire countries to the malign cult of personality and propaganda? Or is it an attack on occult faiths which demand absolute obedience from its followers? It certainly seems suggested by the recent spate of stories about Austrian males hermetically incarcerating their victims for years on end. And of course it also summons up the oldest story of all: of Adam and Eve and the fruit of that forbidden tree.

The three younger cast members – Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni and Hristos Passalis – mimic the awkward physicality of children with unsettling accuracy. Christos Sterliolglou invests the father with a terrifying insouciance. As well as his gift for domestic grand guignol, Lanthimos is a highly original craftsman, framing his strange universe in perversely cropped angles, featuring decapitated heads, skipping feet, loveless half-seen couplings. If only the climactic scene in which the title fully explains itself had been cropped too. In a film about psychiatric violence, the sudden spurt of self-harm is almost unwatchable. 

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