Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2011

Primal fear

Social conditioning takes a sadistic turn in bold and curious 'Dogtooth'

Kino International
Director: Giorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Giogos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Anna Kalaitzidou and Michele Valley
Not rated / 1 hour, 33 minutes
(out of four)

Dogtooth is like what The Village could have been if it the latter had any sense of tact, subtlety and intelligence, and had been approached with a keen sense of the abstract. I suppose what I'm saying, in a roundabout way, is that Dogtooth is absolutely nothing like The Village . .. and we're all the better for it.

Go with me on this. The film focuses on what can be described as a rather cruel experiment by one couple on their unassuming children - an experiment that director Giorgos Lanthimos refuses to explain or rationalize. It just is.

We first notice peculiarities in the children's understanding of language. Certain words we know to mean one thing, they have been trained to believe means something entirely different. "A sea is a leather armchair with wooden arms ... A motorway is a very strong wind ... A zombie is a small yellow flower ..." I don't even want to tell you what they think "keyboard" means.

The children (two girls and a boy) are all well into their teens (or even a bit older) and have never left the family property, which is fenced in on all sides and offers hardly a glimpse at what's beyond those walls. They know they will get to leave eventually - but not, as everyone surely knows, until their dogtooth has fallen out.

Attempting to leave for the outside world is not only expressly forbidden - it's downright life-threatening. The family's [imaginary] other brother once got outside the walls and hasn't been allowed back inside since. The father (Christos Stergioglo) has made sure of that.

All is normal. Planes routinely fly overhead and occasionally - as we all know - fall into the backyard. All four or five plastic inches' worth of them. The children compete for these toys with a sense of almost desperate attachment and pride. (Writing about it, I'm even reminded of the story told in Never Let Me Go about the boy who went beyond the walls of Hailsham.)

Let's see, what else? Ah, yes - the most fearsome beast in the animal kingdom is the cat, which could attack the children at any moment.

One night the parents announce that the mother (Michele Valley) will soon be giving birth to two new babies and a dog - but that the babies can be avoided if the children are obedient enough.

They are.

Such is the reality of Dogtooth, a darkly comic exploration of humanity at its most feral and an ambiguous allegory on the power of conditioning and control - and how that contributes to one's own understanding of what "normal" or "truth" really are. Like the aforementioned The Village (spoiler alert if you still haven't seen the Shyamalan film - and if you haven't, why would you?), a mini-society has been built in order to manipulate and control. Perhaps, you could argue, as a purely sadistic exercise and nothing more. The way the parents deal with the issue of sex is its own special kind of perverse.

There are plenty of parallels to be found about the way families/communities/entire societies are built and maintained, but Lanthimos allows you to draw your own conclusions or attach your own allegorical interpretations. He doesn't dictate the narrative in those terms. The subtext is there, but it's mostly left alone, and is more effective that way.

The instinctive human factor does, of course, come into play in Dogtooth - and does so in thrillingly unusual fashion, as the oldest daughter begins to act out in a way bordering on animalistic.

In his second feature, Lanthimos shows an exquisite level of craftsmanship and clear command of his visuals - the slightly muted lighting evoking a sense of reality just a shade south of normal; the light, unobtrusive color palette; the wide, static shots that present an almost too-calm, too-normal atmosphere.

As exceptional as Dogtooth is, I fear it doesn't add up to quite what it wants to - but that stems mostly from my feelings about the closing shot. Is it chilling? A little, yes. But I don't believe it has quite the impact it thinks it does. The shot could have multiple explanations - though I believe one is clearly insinuated above the rest. In any case, any answer seems curiously rote.

That said, it's still a film whose ideas call for another look - so my feelings may be adjusted upon further viewings. Even with what seems to be a rather obvious (or even inconsequential) conclusion, Dogtooth is nothing if not a unique and fascinatingly clever experiment.

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Read more by Chris Bellamy

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