Dogtooth (2009)

86

It takes quite a bit for a film to scare me. Once you have seen (or rather, survived) some of the most brutal horror movies ever made, very little can be done in the way of outright terrifying you. It is then a truly bizarre feeling when you are left horrified by a film that wasn’t even purporting to be a horror film, but rather a drama with a very serious message. I have to say that Dogtooth (Greek: Κυνόδοντας or Kynodontas) is a film that left me utterly shaken and reconsidering everything I consider to be true about our society.

Yorgos Lanthimos has risen in profile as a filmmaker, and deservedly so – he is able to make darkly comical stories about some very serious issues – Alps looked at death and mourning, whereas The Lobster looked at love. Dogtooth, however, is far more important than either of those, as it is about family and childhood. The themes in Lanthimos’ films are not original to his films, but rather he twists them into something utterly unique and original. I have to say that I see some remarkable comparisons between Lanthimos and Stanley Kubrick in many of his films, particularly the bleak outlook at humanity, and dark humor, that defined many of Kubrick’s masterpieces. In a cinematic world where everyone who makes something even slightly cerebral and disturbing is considered to be “the next Stanley Kubrick”, it is comforting to know that Lanthimos is most certainly the real deal, not because he duplicates Kubrick, but because he captures the same bleak absurdity that Kubrick managed to do.

The vast majority of the action in Dogtooth takes place in one location, a home compound somewhere in Greece. A man (Christos Stergioglou) and his wife (Michelle Valley) keep their three children (Christos Passalis, Angeliki Papoulia, and Mart Tsoni) locked up in their home, having never exposed them to the outside world, keeping their minds clean through rigorous activities where they are brainwashed to believe certain things to be true, and that the outside world is dangerous and toxic. The film tracks the family over a short period, as the children try and find ways to become independent, whereas the parents desperately attempt to protect them from the outside world, going so far in their smothering of their children through concerns of their safety, they eventually become terrifying villains. There really isn’t much in this film regarding plot development, because it really seems to be a “slice-of-life” narrative, albeit showing a very warped, highly disturbing semi-dystopian life.

Dogtooth thrives on its performances, with the exception of one minor character, none of the characters in Dogtooth are given names – they are referred to as “mother”, “father” and then “elder daughter”, “younger daughter” and “son” – this kind of anonymity makes this quite a terrifying film already, because by presenting the audience with a traditional nuclear family, but stripping them away of almost all identity, it strikes us that this could very well be any family, anywhere in the world. Their location is unidentified, and despite being a Greek film and having the characters speak Greek, there really is no indication that they are actually in Greece. It feels way too real, which is amplified by the impressive performances by the cast. They work well as an ensemble, each serving their part. I have to particularly praise Christos Stergioglou, who holds this film together with his terrifying performance as the villainous father. The three children are excellent as well, particularly Mary Tsoni, who plays the youngest daughter with such nervous dignity and childlike wonder. I was saddened to hear that Tsoni died a few months ago because she was clearly a talented actress and her performance here in Dogtooth was remarkable. Angeliki Papoulia plays the other daughter, and she gives a very strong performance, equally as great as her performance in another of Lanthimos’ dark social comedies, Alps.

Believe it or not, Dogtooth is a comedy. It is a pitch-black comedy, to be fair – and it has some dreadfully serious moments of pure horror. Yet, it still has a sense of humor. It isn’t funny at all, but it is very satirical in the manner of how it represents modern society. I am not entirely sure what Lanthimos intended, but Dogtooth is certainly a lot darker than I expected it to be. Like many great dark comedies, Dogtooth looks at society in an uncompromising way – it is often ruthless in portraying family dynamics, and it almost openly mocks the tropes of the nuclear family – because, beneath this film’s very dark tone, there is a story about a family living their lives. It is only made to see a lot more absurd due to the fact that it is layered with violence, cruelty and overt sexuality that makes this such a distinctive film. It is a film that openly ridicules the concept of what a family is “supposed” to be, and you wouldn’t be blamed for finding someone moments of this film a lot funnier than the rest Dogtooth – such as when the parents explain what certain words mean (such as a “zombie” meaning “a small yellow flower”), or the innocent discussions between the adult children, who have the minds of children. Every tiny detail of this film pays off by the end.

This is where it gets a little more tricky in discussing this film, something I alluded to earlier on. Dogtooth is probably more terrifying than any horror film, mainly because of what I mentioned just before this – it takes a look at society, framing the idea of a family in such a way that it seems simultaneously realistic, but also unrecognizable absurd – and whereas there are several moments of this film where this absurdity is made to be satirical and ridiculous, there are an equal number of moments where this film is shocking. There are many instances of brutal violence, which seemingly come out of nowhere – brief forays into absurdity, followed by moments of heartbreaking violence that literally cause the audience to wince are exactly what makes Dogtooth such a unique film. It is a film that is so difficult to watch because unlike many horror films, which are suitably far-fetched and often ridiculous, Dogtooth has a sense of reality about it, something sinister that we believe could (and probably is) happening somewhere in the world.

The most impressive aspect of Dogtooth is how it functions as a piece of cinema. It is so wildly beautiful in how it is shot, but also highly unconventional. This is perhaps where the Kubrick connection comes in, because Dogtooth, like many of Kubrick’s films, makes remarkable use of cinematography in very odd ways. Lanthimos’ camera is often stagnant and focuses on one frame for a tad too long, and whereas many other more conventional films will use this kind of cinematography to focus on something beautiful or noteworthy, Dogtooth rather focuses on things that are pretty normal, but through being the focal point of a lingering shot, it becomes a lot more horrifying. Perhaps the best example of this is the final shot of Dogtooth, which left me so cold and with an insatiable sense of bleak hopelessness. In addition to the quite disturbing use of the long shot, the cinematography also highlights the terrifying normality of a family home – there is nothing that scares us more than seeing something that is otherwise normal represented in such a disturbing manner – Dogtooth succeeds as a film mainly because of the way this film frames the painful normality of life, in a way that is uncanny and cold. The mostly white and beige landscape of the house (which in itself is seemingly endless in size, quite different from the claustrophobic, trapped tone of the film), and it is shockingly juxtaposed with the harsh reds of blood that result from the violence. It is an unbelievably beautiful film to look at, but one that also scares us with its keen eye for warping our domestic sensibilities, forcing us to feel an unshakable sense of uneasiness.

Dogtooth is a difficult film to watch. It is dreadfully terrifying as a social drama and makes many scathing remarks about the nature of the world. It is a beautifully made piece of cinema, and tremendously well-written. It is unpredictable, scary and often darkly comical. The performances are amazing, and the tone of this film gives these actors some interesting moments to play with. It is a film that will cauterize you and haunt you because it just seems so personal and uncanny, it is impossible to not think about it. It is a wonderful film, and the first major film in the career of a director who I imagine will become more famous and acclaimed as the years go on, especially due to the fact that he has now started working in bigger films with bigger stars, while still retaining his trademark bleak realism and dark humor that made films like Dogtooth and Alps some of the most original pieces of cinema ever made.

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