At The Picture Show
Social conditioning takes a sadistic turn in bold and curious 'Dogtooth'
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.
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
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