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.


Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks, I'll definitely have to see this one. So would it have made your top 10 for last year?

MT said...

I'm not allowed to read this post yet because I have to see this film, but it's my most anticipated of now.

Carson Lund said...

Loren, it definitely would have made my top ten. It's so original and unsettling. Though I might have included towards the end of the list. I'm still making my mind up about what it's really trying to say.

Mattson, it was one of my most anticipated as well. It should be on Netflix instant.

JeanRZEJ said...

I don't think the film is trying to say anything - I think the way it is structured as a totally ridiculous parenting exercise precludes any serious readings as a commentary. Instead, it is a matter of provoking thought, asking questions. When something so ridiculous which so clearly works against typical methods of creating empathy with the characters manages to transcend that divide I think it speaks volumes to the irrepressible nature of those transcending elements. For me, the two most irrepressible elements were the effects of violence, which shifts dramatically from the nearly purely comic scene with the kitten to the end where it is a blend of pure tragicomedy, as the effects of the compounding violence, even on these people we barely see, forces empathy to arise. The other element I find most fascinating is the good parenting that sits deep at the roots of their current actions which have blossomed into something ugly. I wrote a bit more about it in my blog if you want to read it, and I also have a post which provides a conception of 'black comedy' which I think fits Dogtooth well - it starts as a distancing comic farce but slowly merges with the irrepressible human overtones into the tragicomic, which is, I think, the best definition of 'black comedy', as derived from a book by J. L. Styan. Most people don't have a functioning definition of 'black comedy', so it's always a matter of semantics, but I think his definition makes a lot of sense and fits Dogtooth perfectly. As he describes it, black comedy functions at the level of ambivalence, never 'saying' anything but always forcing reflection.

As for the parents' motives, I think their actions make a lot more sense if you take into account the unstated possibility which Lanthimos' ideas stemmed from: a place where families are outlawed and thus people must keep their kids separate and secret if they want them at all. That gives a bit more ambivalence to the parents' motives, I think.

Carson Lund said...

JeanRZEJ: Addressing that the movie was trying to "say something" was probably not the right way to put it. At the risk of repeating myself, I realize the film is intensely ambiguous and decidedly acontextual. It seeks to provoke a variety or questions rather than making any explicit commentary in one area of subject matter. I guess I'm just lost in thought about how the individual, seemingly symbolic elements (the killing of the cat, the confusion regarding the plane, the death of the mysterious brother, the final dance) fit into a coherent whole. I can't help but assume Lanthimos had some rationale behind his unusual decisions and bizarre episodes, and if so it seems to be pointing at something bigger, perhaps linked only to an ideology or perhaps linked to a specific historical event. Sure, one can easily say the film is about how we are conditioned to gradually understand the world, and how we subtly rub up against these premeditated conditions, but there are lots of nuances that Lanthimos adds to the film that suggests a greater complexity at work. I'm just trying to unpack that. Thanks for commenting

JeanRZEJ said...

'I'm just trying to unpack that.'

Yeah, I just got the wrong impression from what you said. With satire it's sort of the opposite - the artist is trying to pack a bunch of stuff into a cohesive attack on something, but black comedy tends to work the opposite, by creating a muddle of conflicting elements because there's no clear answer either way. I think most people have an idea of black comedy as equivalent to black farce, though - which this film starts as, but definitely doesn't end up as - and so when you 'discredited Dogtooth as the "dark comedy" it's been marketed as' I think this is a function of that. I think the black comedy is the most effective method of addressing those things which are both absurd (the comic) and yet impossible to brush off (the dark, tragic side). Here you have the comic elements both of sequestering children and pop culture, both initially unfolding as comic farce but coalescing into a tragicomic blend which provokes thought, rather than simply preaches one position or another.

I don't see those elements you're struggling with as symbolic. It seems a very literal film, to me, which gains interest as the clashes between the literalization by the children creates chaos and harm. As evidenced by the confrontation with the kitten the kids recognize the effects of violence, and when the boy kills the kitten the girls simultaneously emit a synchronized bloodcurdling scream. To the audience, though, it's a moment of pure dramatic irony, totally farcical. By the end, when the violence becomes equally literal but impossible to pass off as simple misinformation (a knife attack, a VHS tape to the face) it suddenly eliminates the dramatic irony entirely and the violence is immediate and serious to the audience and character alike. The plane is a similar instance of this: misinformation about the size of the plane and the violence of a large plane crashing being anesthetized into a safe landing on the lawn of a tiny little plane. It works as a metaphor, as well, with the same sort of dramatic irony, but it also works immediately to show just how the parents' distort and dilute everything, especially that involving violence - the exception being when they are tempted by the outside world, at which point he shows the kids (increasingly concerned with their brother) as having been murdered by a cat, or resorting to extreme violence to persuade the eldest to give up her obsession with the outside media. Once she becomes as afraid of the violence inside the house as outside, though, she tries to get away. Violence, the distortion of perspective - these are the central issues the film explores through tragicomic contrast, to me, and most every element of the film has its comic and tragic element in equal share, regardless of how 'realistic' they are. It's not about realism so much as the tragicomic tension, and it works brilliantly, to me.

Carson Lund said...

I don't think we're really disagreeing about much here. We both agree that this film is "black comedy," at least in the loosest sense of the term. We agree that the film has a tragicomic dimension relentlessly, and this owes a great deal to why it's so unsettling and involving, constantly creating a weird tension between its disparate elements. And we certainly agree that the film is about violence and the distortion of perspective. That much is easily clear. But I don't think that any of this gets us very far.

I realize Lanthimos is kind of laying everything out there in a deliberately vague manner so as to provoke thought and associations. He's not hammering home any points. But I still believe there's a strong, conscious subtext at work here, something underneath that is guiding the scenes. Why make a scene with a plane rather than a dartboard? Why have there be an illicit "brother" who "dies from a cat"? I understand what these scenes accomplish on a surface level in service of the film's musings on violence and particularly distortion of perspective. But Lanthimos could have made these statements without, for instance, referencing 9/11. I think it has more to say than just something "about the future of families," as Lanthimos quite routinely puts it.

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