Review: Dogtooth (2009)

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For an addition take of on Dogtooth, check out Guido’s review.

Dogtooth is that rare kind of film that few who see are able to forget, hard though many may try. Arriving from seemingly nowhere and taking the art-house circuit by storm back in 2009, Yorgos Lanthimos’ edgy and uncomfortable film went on to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in one of the more surprising moments in the history of the Academy.

Released in the wake of the discovery of Elizabeth Fritzl’s 24-year captivity under her own father, the potentially unbelievable premise of Dogtooth seemed all the more plausible. An industrial factory manager and his wife keep their three adult children confined to their large countryside compound, isolating them from the outside world which they claim to be overrun by giant killer cats.

Dogtooth avoids lingering on its strangeness, showing this family as functional, however disturbing their life may seem to us. The children, though adult, are portrayed as mentally regressed, the social and behavioural development we might expect of characters this age severalty hampered by their lack of exposure to the outside world. Tapes are provided by the family matriarch revealing the meaning of new words to the unwitting prisoners: a “zombie” is a little yellow flower; “sea” the large armchair; “phone” the salt shaker. The father periodically brings a woman who works at his factory to the family home, where she is paid to have sex with the son (save the woman, Christine, the characters are never identified by name). This is a highly unusual and unique story, but one which never dwells upon its own eccentricity.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dogtooth is the categorisation it has been assigned. Many have labelled the film a comedy, citing the absurdist elements of its plot as clear evidence that Lanthimos is constructing a farcical tale of surreal humour. Many scenes indeed provoke laughter of a sort: the son cautiously approaching a cat, shears in hand; one of the daughters re-enacting Rocky and Jaws, having watched them on videotapes bribed out of Christine; the father tearing his clothes to appear as though he has been viciously attacked. These images, in their bizarreness, welcome giggles from the audience, but this always seems more rooted in nervousness than amusement; in not quite knowing how to react to these scenes.

It is not so much the content of Dogtooth that unnerves and agitates the viewer, but the way in which this is articulated. Lanthimos presents his scenes with a striking coldness, his camera remaining predominantly static and his choice of angles devoid of stylistic flair. The film is directed with surgical precision, the anaesthetised aesthetic precisely calculated to facilitate our immersion in this bizarre tale. In-scene cuts are rare, Lanthimos preferring to allow us to lose ourselves in the realistic illusion of cinema and the enrapturing but disturbing effect of his film. In fact, the direction actually draws our attention to the reality the film is constructing and the very fact that it is a construction in the first place. Dogtooth exists in a state of almost hyper-reality: it is too real, so real that it seems unreal. The framing is rigidly formal, deliberately constructed to maintain an aesthetic that is representative of reality, but too cold and frigid to be anything more than a lifeless simulation. The colours the film employs contribute equally to this sense of falsity, their dullness and lack of vibrancy contributing much the same to the film’s visual aloofness. The soundtrack is strikingly silent, the only music we hear contributed by the characters themselves.

With these deliberately false aesthetic aspects, Lanthimos invites us to draw parallels to his narrative. Dogtooth cleverly replicates the father’s efforts to create a “real family”, its realism employed to such an exaggerated extent that it is clearly a fiction, mirroring the familial situation closely. At a glance this is a perfectly normal, functional family, but one need only look a little deeper to see that it is anything but. The father is the autocratic leader who, in “protecting” his family, has instead cut them off from the world and rendered them unable to function within it. The classic patriarchal approach, investing all the power in the male parent, has crippled this family, though they themselves are so used to this way of life that they are unable to see it. Dogtooth condemns the falsification of “the perfect family”, ridiculing such attempts to protect one’s family from the outside world as far more dangerous than anything that might lie within it.

Dogtooth is undeniably obtuse, its oblique concept and abstract direction lending itself to any number of interpretations and analyses. Is this a condemnation of the crippling influence of autocracy? An indictment, perhaps, of the state of contemporary Greek society? Or simply a moral parable decrying patriarchal control, be it in family or on a wider scale? Whatever one might take from the film, Dogtooth taps into a part of the human consciousness few films dare to approach, leaving us unsure how to react, think, or even feel.

[notification type=”star”]90/100 ~ AMAZING. Whatever one might take from the film, Dogtooth taps into a part of the human consciousness few films dare to approach, leaving us unsure how to react, think, or even feel.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.