Monday, February 7, 2011
Dogtooth (2010) A Film by Giorgos Lanthimos
(Many spoilers ahead!!!)
Giorgos Lanthimos wouldn't be out of place in Texas Chainsaw Massacre based on the number of times he cuts off heads in his third feature film, the otherworldly and mordant Dogtooth. His default image is a geometrically ordered room whose occupants eventually situate themselves in such a way that their heads skirt just above the top of the frame, leaving only their lifeless bodies within the composition. Unsurprisingly, the effect is dehumanizing, and the accumulation of all of these seemingly offhand but very deliberate images is akin to being forcefully denied entry to these characters' thoughts and emotions, encouraged to see them only as figures in a grand design. And of course, to the psychopathic parental unit at the core of the film, they are. Lanthimos is blending both an insider and an anthropological eye to capture the sick social malpractice that is the film's central premise: a married couple have cultivated their children in a closed-off, forbidding domestic atmosphere, teaching them that the world beyond their backyard's imposing walls is cruel, dangerous, and amoral. The irony, readily obvious from the very beginning of the film, is that the absurdly overprotective lifestyle they have carved out for their offspring is the only real danger.
Before cracking the whip on Lanthimos as a misanthropic freak himself, it's important to realize the glaringly obvious: Dogtooth is a bold thematic brushstroke, a cautionary tale about, among many other things, the intricacies of a child's impressionability in which the shocking behavioral experimentation on display has nothing to do with the director's own belief system. The film is aggressively acontextual and timeless - save for one possible reference to 9/11 that is, before any extratextual associations, more about the extremity of the childrens' sensory deprivation and numbness to figure/ground relationships - in an attempt to be applicable to any time or any context. It is an intellectualized, Brechtian form of cinema, so what seems like an absence of humanity at first is actually the intention. Sometimes within the same extended camera take, Lanthimos is alternating between viewing the children through the lens of the father and mother - that is, as passive, nameless objects - and viewing them as living, breathing humans capable of independent thought and rational rebellion. Witness the first scene, for instance, when a small portable device mechanically reads off new, coded vocabulary for the children to learn. First, they sit silently, digesting the artificial knowledge. Then, in a spark of imagination, they rail against their parents' insistent computerized lesson, attempting to devise a game that will put to use their newly acquired understanding of "endurance." Moments like this, as well as the eldest daughter's incorporation, later on, of behavior she learns illicitly from Rocky and Jaws, are proof that the stilted, robotic qualities of these children are entirely the product of external forces, that they possess an ability for individuality that is being oppressed by their parents.
At this point, it's necessary to drop the fact that these "children" are actually not children at all. The young daughter, the son, and the older daughter - played by Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia, respectively - must all be in their late teens at least, if not their twenties. Their ages are obviously not followed closely by their parents, who prefer arbitrary bodily check-marks as indicators of their development in life. The film gets its title from the parents' rule that the children may not leave the grounds of the home until their dogtooth falls out and grows back. Of course, the "dogteeth", or the pointed upper teeth on either side of the mouth, never naturally fall out, meaning the parents have created an obstacle that cannot, in reality, be overcome. They tend to rely on these kinds of false manipulations to insure they have complete control over the evolution of their children. At one point, the mother (Michele Valley) threatens them with the prospect of giving birth, stating that she will not "have to" disrupt the orderly flow of life with a new kid if everyone behaves themselves. The father (Christos Stergioglou), who is the film's most disturbingly senseless creation largely due to his greater screen time, comes home from work at his factory and sneaks three large fish into the backyard pool either to force his children to deal with an unknown object or perhaps just to screw with them. Supposedly, the parents do what they do because they love their children, and in an age of increasingly wayward homeschooling practices, their unconventional methods, though exaggerated, don't stretch the imagination too far.
The film's most fascinating plot ingredient is the figure of Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard from the father's factory whom he hires to relieve the instinctual urges of his son. In light of so much autocratic suppression, it's unusual that the father actively allows his son the freedom of sexual release, but even this act of seeming indulgence becomes a calculated contrivance, a nearly unwatchable display of passionless, somnambulistic sex captured by Lanthimos in extensive, harshly symmetrical compositions. When Christina loses interest in the somber and inexperienced son, she goes against the father's wishes and engages in bartering with the daughters, leading to the trading of various outside goods for oral sex. The household becomes a sexualized free market economy, and ultimately Christina represents the infiltration of the external world in spite of the father's persistent attempts at security (blindfolding her on the way to the house).
Lanthimos has an immensely refreshing aesthetic sense, a genuine knack for composing striking shots. The world he has created is a warped replication of our own, a quiet, bucolic countryside where everything, even the patch of bright palm trees in the backyard, seems to seethe with malign purpose and menacing geometry. Lanthimos contrasts the vibrant, overabundant jungle of the backyard - with its artificial ideals of a slickly manicured lawn and a spotless pool - with the more lifeless triangular formations on the buildings at the father's factory lot. There are rich internal editing rhythms at work (the lovely sound bridge that takes us from an underwater shot of one of the daughters swimming to a family dinner scene where the son is playing on the out-of-tune piano in the living room) and dynamic interplays between minimalist shot structures and off-the-cuff handheld camera. In an interesting touch, Lanthimos actively engages with lens flares, often making bubbles of light a part of the composition rather than an intrusion or an optical error. All of this lends a phenomenal sense of place to the film, which is crucial given the fact that it's the only atmosphere the children know.
Dogtooth could very well be interpreted as a modern-day riff on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, insofar as the domestic prison represents the cave. What's interesting, in this scenario, is that the ultimate enlightenment, the moment where the eldest daughter "sees the light," is brought about by popular culture. In one of their many secretive trades, Christina presents the eldest with Hollywood films on VHS tapes, and slowly, before she is punished violently by her father, Lanthimos works in scenes of her appropriating behaviors from the movies, such as her pretending to be a shark attacking her brother in the pool. Rather than decrying the mass media's influence as demoralizing, it seems Lanthimos is embracing it as a form of catharsis, reacting to a general anti-media bias within some schools of developmental psychology with a scenario that posits the integration of media into life as the only route to freedom.
The final thirty minutes, wherein the eldest daughter finally devises and enacts her clever escape plan without taking into account a fundamental precaution, left me feeling a kind of deep-seated unease that I haven't experienced in quite a while. Long after I completely discredited Dogtooth as the "dark comedy" it's been marketed as (though, admittedly, there were moments where a restrained chuckle or two slipped out of me), the film settles into a daunting, challenging, and horrific denouement that is littered with one shocking, retina-burning image after another. Far from being out for simplistic shocks though, the film has a deceptive, understated quality of disturbance to it. Yet it's this understatement that makes the film so difficult to grapple with on thematic levels, simply because it gestures vaguely in so many directions. Although somewhat simplistic in its overt criticisms of dictatorial family units, the ideology of homeschooling, and the more widespread idea of national security, the film has such a distinctive stylistic sensibility that it's disingenuous to make any claims of lackluster artistry. I haven't made up my mind yet as to whether Dogtooth actually is as intelligent as it's cracked up to be, but it's certainly a tense, unforgettable experience.