If you could mold a robot in your own image, would you? The robot doesn’t have to look like you, but its opinions and emotions would entirely be filtered through your world view, excising any outside influence. It would have exaggerated versions of your fears and failures too, and while many people try to live vicariously through their children, should that really be anyone’s goal?
Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth is a blunt and disquieting treatise on why children might want to stop at parental influence before it gets to parental emulation. Lanthimos’ film, which, like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, deals with parents who are so scared of modern technology and behavior that they isolate them in a world of their own making, and one which the children are too scared to escape.
However, rather than a large budget, flashy photography, and colorful costumes, Lanthimos, whose film is in Greek, went with a static camera, few edits, no music, one major set, pasty actors, and an antiseptic, deadening dryness that is more reminiscent of the films of Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Cache) and the Dogme’ 95 films of Lars Von Trier (The Idiots). This might sound boring, what’s a Von Trier film without visual flourishes? Where would Haneke be if he didn’t delight in making the only audience with the patience to sit through his films, feel punished and chastised for being ineffectual and upper-middle class?
But Lanthimos’ strategy is brilliant, we don’t get exposition and we never get a chance to orient ourselves, so when the three adult children of the terrified parents open the film by listening to a language tape that has them repeating incorrect definitions for common words (salt = phone), you may feel like checking if there’s something wrong with the subtitles.
Are these kids crazy? Are we on an alien planet? Is this Greek mumblecore? Why is that lady in a security uniform blindfolded in the car? And why is she suddenly an impersonal prostitute for the driver’s son? We eventually get answers to all of these questions, but the father/driver, who makes his money as some sort of manager in a factory, isn’t minimized by a pat psychological explanation. His wife seems a little off, but comforted by the quiet control she has over the children, but whether or not the overprotective father is committing a crime or wielding whatever power he can find or just a sad, scared man is never discussed.
Dogtooth progresses in a slow, mundane fashion, with individual scenes not hammering their point home until late into the film when the children begin to discover sex, but especially the two older girls (somewhere between 20 and 30, and brilliantly cast for their visual similarities alone) who don’t have the advantage of coming across mom’s secret porn stash. It’s a movie that doesn’t sneak up on you and from the outside could be seen as boring, but is so non-judgmental and beaten down that it lets you bring all of your personal prejudices with you.
Was my reaction to the slow family disintegration based on the infiltration of American culture based on being steeped in media criticism, or was the disintegration inevitable considering the shock value of anything new that their parents hadn’t scared them into believing? That’s what is so unique about Dogtooth; it has similarities to Rolf De Heer films like Bad Boy Bubby and Alexandra’s Project, which also deal with main characters that have jammed their thought process down the throats of their loved ones to the point of violent rebellion, but without any technical trickery or character POV. Dogtooth has similarities to Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, specifically in the fixed camerawork and the assault on deliberately ignorant parents who refuse to acknowledge the problems that their narcissism has caused. But Buffalo ’66 is a surrealist comedy with an arrogant jerk at its center, and Dogtooth plays it completely straight, to the point where when the girls perform a dance recital for their parent’s wedding anniversary it turns into a spastic SNL-style imitation of what happens when someone sees Flashdance, but doesn’t understand Flashdance*.
That’s why Dogtooth is a litmus test for not just your patience but how much de-glamorized sex and violence you can handle, and whether or not you want to be assaulted by a sea of nothingness that will stay with you for days. Sitting in your seat in stunned silence seems like an appropriate reaction.
* Dogtooth has the best Flashdance reference since Hot Rod.