Pros:Great performances, engaging story
Cons:disturbing sexual content, slow paced
The Bottom Line: Dogtooth is not for everyone, but adventurous movie fans who can accept its odd pacing and disturbing tone will find an interesting viewing experience.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Giorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 Greek film Dogtooth will never be mistaken for “light entertainment.” This Oscar nominee (a Best Foreign Language Film contender in 2011) is challenging viewing – and not an altogether pleasant experience.
The film focuses on a tightly-knit nuclear family, led by a character simply known as Father (Christos Stergioglou). Father and his wife (the imaginatively named Mother, played by Michelle Valley) raise their three children (Older Daughter Aggeliki Papoulia, Younger Daughter Mary Tsoni, and Son Hristos Passalis) – all teenagers – in their isolated family home. To protect their kids, they keep them cut off from the outside world – teaching them that words like zombie refer to yellow flowers and not the walking dead – and never allow them outside of the residence’s gates.
Things take an even stranger turn when Father brings an outsider – a security guard at the plant he works at named Christina – home to help alleviate his son’s sexual needs. The introduction of this new person threatens to change the carefully cultivated dynamic that Father and Mother have worked so diligently to maintain. We watch the rest of the film wondering how it will all play out.
Astute cinephiles have been quick to point out that Dogtooth bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1973 Mexican film El Castillo de la Pureza (Castle of Purity). While I’ve never seen that film, it appears they’re on to something – but Dogtooth shouldn’t be discounted solely because it drew inspiration from another relatively obscure source. Lanthimos’ film is as timely as ever in an age of “bubble wrap parents” so desperate to protect their offspring from everything in the world around them that nothing seems to extreme when it comes time to “think of the children.”
Dogtooth takes this type of parenting to a disturbing (and occasionally hilarious) end. Father and Mother tell the kids of their older brother who left the safety of the gated utopia (the kids toss things over the high fence in hopes he’ll get them) and warn them that cats are a dangerous enemy to be killed on sight. The sexual and cultural awakening inspired by Christina’s arrival threatens to reveal the lie once and for all – a genie that once freed from its bottle can never be returned.
What makes Dogtooth so fascinating is the way Lanthimos keeps the audience completely off-balance. Dogtooth is funny and unpleasant, often in the same instance. While watching it, one is never sure whether they’re supposed to laugh or gasp in horror as the filmmaker crosses taboo lines in a way that’s confrontational yet open to interpretation. Add in an undercurrent of repressed sexuality and incest that permeates the tale’s second half and it becomes that much more upsetting. Lanthimos has created a film that works on a multitude of different levels – there are countless ways to read what he’s created, all equally viable. The kicker is that none of them are particularly lighthearted or positive – but it never feels as though he’s pandering or being purely exploitative either. It’s a film that is both a joy and a burden to watch. Few movies can claim that.
Nothing – not even the film’s final scene – is clear-cut in this title. While a character like Father may seem like a bad, dangerous, and potentially unhinged man in some scenes, it’s entirely possible to read his actions in a more positive light as well. When he beats one of his kids with a videotape, it’s upsetting and unpleasant – but at the same time, it’s a father disciplining his child to protect them from something he deems inappropriate. The measures are extreme, but the action isn’t inherently evil. Dogtooth is filled with moments like these – which is why viewers will probably still be thinking about it days after they’ve viewed it.
As a commentary on the modern day nanny state, Dogtooth hits all the right notes. Lanthimos has crafted a disturbing satire that pokes fun at our preoccupation with protecting our children from the world around us, while subtly pointing out that by doing so we’re ultimately doing them a disservice. The laconic pacing and occasionally unpleasant tone of the film will surely put some viewers off – but those with the patience to see Dogtooth through to its conclusion will be rewarded with one of the odder and more intriguing foreign films in recent memory.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening