SXSW Review: Dogtooth

By  · Published on March 14th, 2010

When writing about Dogtooth the question is not, as it is in approaching many film reviews, whether or not some elements of a film work and others don’t in order to achieve what it sets out to, but whether or not the audience accepts or rejects what is set out to be achieved in the first place. Tonally and stylistically, Dogtooth is consistent, informed, and well executed on every aesthetic and technical level. There are no real missteps in its process. So to critique the film is to feel repelled by its confrontational methodology of storytelling or the entirety of the challenging story being told, and such a critique would be legitimate as Dogtooth is a profoundly disturbing film, difficult to watch on many levels, and meant only for a very particular type of audience. That being said, I absolutely loved this movie.

Winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes, Dogtooth is a Greek film about…let’s say, an insulated suburban family. The immediate family remains nameless, but the patriarch of the household is some sort of manager at an industrial power plant who, without the slightest intrusion from the rest of society and without the slightest hint of suspicion of anybody residing outside his house, has raised his two daughters and one son exclusively in the confines of their home without ever once leaving. It’s a very tight rein he holds on his three full grown adult-children, having implemented decades of conditioning that have caused them to be so obedient and fearful of the outside world that the father doesn’t even have to worry about them wandering off with the garage door wide open.

One could bestow many things upon the inspiration for this narrative, from a thorough examination of Stockholm syndrome that reflects several recent histories of children kidnapped and raised exclusively at home to the result of permanent psychological damage, or as reflective of cultures of religious extremism rooted in the insecurities of power-hungry patriarchal control freaks who literally breed a culture that fears society and never questions its immediate masters. Whatever Dogtooth is exactly, it’s damned compelling and quite unlike anything I’ve seen, and as absurd as each and every moment of the film may be, there exist precedents in Western society that suggest its horrifying scenario to not be so unrealistic.

What’s fascinating about the film is seeing how it methodically unravels until we the audience are able to put the pieces together and understand what is truly going on. Director Giorgos Lanthimos accomplishes this through the slow reveal of intricate details that allow the father to be able to accomplish such an ambitious and twisted conditioning project in the first place, using a mostly static camera and quiet moments (while there is occasionally music incorporated by the characters, Dogtooth contains no score) to exhibit odd details through a deliberate pace until we are finally able to piece such details together ourselves. It’s an intriguing exercise in assembling meaning through film, and one that puts a great weight of responsibility upon its audience.

The film’s use of language is one of the more interesting ways in which such a complex project of oppression is manifested. From the very first scene it’s established that the parents (the mother, who possesses a vague history of insanity, is both participant and victim of the rouse) have built an entire lexicon of their own, conflating words with meanings not typically associated in order to implement a form of doublespeak that squelches any opportunity of rebellion through thought control. Words signifying communication devices, objects of popular culture, or those suggesting blunt sexuality gain connotation with a less threatening counterpart – telephone coming to mean “salt shaker” or pussy meaning “big light,” for example. Thus, rebellion is rendered impossible if one is prevented from acquiring the vocabulary necessary to even conceive of it. It’s a fascinating idea thankfully implemented here in a pragmatic, covert, non-Orwellian way.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Dogtooth is its sense of humor. Throughout the methodically paced movement from scene-to-scene, detailed revelations of the household’s function can’t help but come across as darkly comic in its total absurdity. The absurdity is convincing, and laughter somewhat mitigates the profoundly discomfiting experience of enduring this otherwise shocking film, but when laughing in response to Dogtooth one never gets the sense that they are laughing at it, but with it, and somehow this reaction makes the whole experience far more troubling, not alleviating. Imagine if Michael Haneke had a sense of humor, and what you’d end up with is Dogtooth.

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