"A zombie is a small yellow flower."
Release: 2009-11-11 (Greece wide), 2010-04-23 (UK), 2010-06-25 (USA)
Director: Giorgos Lanthimos
Original title: Kynodontas (Κυνόδοντας)
MPAA rating: Not rated but I'd expect NC-17
Cast: Nobody you're likely to have heard of but Christos Stergioglou, Angeliki Papoulia, Michelle Valley, Christos Passalis, Mary Tsoni, and Anna Kalaitzidou
I watched this movie after browsing recent Academy Awards nominations for something interesting that did not involve geopolitics. This excluded the latest iterations of the ain't-freedom-great sob story from the oppressed citizen-filmmakers of Muslimistan and the baked-earth hardship dramas from Afrindia. Spotting something Greek that was not a documentary on the toil of the diaspora, I naturally decided that I should check out what the great minds of Hollywood thought passed for a good Hellenic film these days. Dogtooth is apparently such a film, produced on a budget of about $350000, most of it from a state sponsorship.
Dogtooth was not something I'd expect to win an Oscar. It didn't. It did not even win a Silver Palm at Cannes where it premiered in May 2009 (though it did walk off with the prix un certain regard), and those are the sort of people that shower Lars von Trier with praise and prizes. But still, it was eeeeenteresting and shows that those Academy people will nominate things in the foreign film category that they wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole in any other class.
The story and the un-story
Dogtooth narrates the life of a family in which the now grown children have been raised in complete isolation from the world. The opening scene is a language lesson in which several common words are introduced with definitions that are far removed from the ones that we would use. The children, two girls and a boy, appear to be in their early to mid twenties. The father is an industrialist, the mother stays at home, and the whole family lives on a large property with an inordinately high fence and a swimming pool. I'd place the setting on the outer fringes of the eastern suburbs of Athens, where you can get high up enough on a mountain to be pretty isolated.
The lengths to which the parents go in order to keep the children ignorant and protected from the evil influences of outside are sometimes comical and sometimes downright scary. Every event that does not fit the paradigm has to be twisted and rationalised to fit into the parents' narrative. Aeroplanes are flying things that can be captured when they fall. When the son kills a stray animal in the garden, he's praised and justified because Cats are introduced as man-eating monsters that lurk outside the fence. Later, when one of the daughters blames an act of violence against her brother on a Cat, her excuse is noddingly accepted as an obvious explanation by the entire family. The brother is scolded for leaving the cat-admitting window open and everyone keeps a straight, serious face throughout the charade, and this includes the lesson on how to ward off Cats, a surreal scene that I won't spoil for you.
The wrench in the works of this bucolic insanity comes in the form of Christina, one of the father's employees who is driven to the house blindfolded and whose role is to "service" the son. Of course, while the parents can isolate the house they cannot insulate the people in it from each other. As Christina becomes intimate with the daughters, things begin to get weirder and need stranger explanations. The catalyst for the inevitable meltdown is an "outside" videotape that the daughter blackmails out of Christina.
What makes this film disturbing is that, despite the plot being totally outlandish and bizarre, the director's presentation is naturalistic and low-key. In contrast, the dialogue is halting and stilted and entirely artificial as though the characters had no control over their words or expression. The director (and screenwriter) perhaps unwittingly draws a documentary line that stretches from the honour-killing fields of Pakistan to Akin-voting homeschoolers in Missouri in that the display of fatalism and submission to paternal authority is dramatically absolute and undisputed. And none of this is even done in the name of religion. This is just how things are. It's a one-family cult that drinks the Kool-Aid with every meal. Identity is so tied to the individual's master status that none of the characters except for the outsider have names.
This film is made up of unequal parts of gross naïveté and sheer awkwardness, with a dash of pure perversion. At times it looks as though someone decided to write a script that would be the bastard love child of Sturgeon and Pirandello. At others you might even want to look at it as a cynical treatise on power and authority. If you ask me, Dogtooth is about a family that's half American Gothic and half National Geographic.
Should you watch it?
I'm going to tell you to watch Dogtooth just because I like to mess with people's heads. You do have to have a taste for the weird to appreciate it. This ain't Sleepless in Seattle. It is sometimes squirmingly amusing but it is rarely funny. If this is a comedy it's a comedy with all the albedo of a black hole. But yes, by all means, watch it. Just don't come back to thank me for telling you to do so. If you enjoyed it I'm not sure I want to know you.
Film critic style rating: * * * + (3.5/5)
"Soon your mother will give birth to two children and a dog."