First published by Sight & Sound, May 2010
Synopsis: Inside a secluded residential compound, a Mother and Father and their three children – the unnamed Older Daughter, Younger Daughter, and Son – live in a hermetic fantasy realm. The parents subject the children to arbitrary exercises, competitions and behavioural codes, and feed them a string of lies about the worlds both within and beyond the perimeter fence. Denied the basics of education and socialisation, the grown-up children remain infantilised, and neither they nor their Mother ever leave the property confines. Evidently a second brother jumped fence some time ago, and while he never came back, Son still hurls taunts and even stones at him across the garden hedge, while one of the Daughters lobs food over for him to eat. Eventually Father declares that the missing brother has been killed and devoured by a cat.
Only Father ever leaves the house. He goes to his factory office job, he purchases household provisions (painstakingly removing any labels), he checks on the progress of his new dog Rex at an obedience school – and occasionally he brings home Christina, a security guard at the factory, to service the Son’s sexual needs. For the children, Christina is a source of forbidden goods and knowledge – but when Father discovers that she has been secretly lending the Older Daughter movies on videotape, he beats the pair of them viciously, and decides that from now on the Son’s sexual needs should be satisfied strictly in-house. Deflowered by her own brother, Older Sister now speaks in a constant stream of film quotes, adopts the name ‘Bruce’ for herself, and finally, hammering out her dogteeth – whose loss her Father had said signifies the time a child is ready to leave the house – she hides herself in the boot of his car to be driven off the following morning.
Review: “The issue here is to decide together how we want your dog to behave. Do we want an animal or do we want a friend?”
This is what the dog trainer (Alexander Voulgaris) tells an unnamed Father (Christos Stergioglou) about the care and patience required to guide Rex through the five stages of canine obedience schooling, but his words resonate in a film about the bizarre indoctrination of the Father’s own grown-up children – who have been told that they will not be ready to leave home until they lose their dogteeth, and who in one scene are taught to line up on all fours in the garden and bark as a defensive measure against (putatively man-eating) cats.
The second feature of writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos (Kinetta, 2005), and winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Dogtooth (Kynodontas) coolly documents the hermetic existence imposed upon the unnamed – and nameless – Elder Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), Younger Daughter (Mary Tsoni) and Son (Christos Passalis) by their Father and Mother (Michelle Valley). Impounded since birth within their sequestered property, the three have been allowed no contact with, or accurate knowledge of, the world beyond, besides occasional visits from Father’s work colleague Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) to provide (paid) relief for the Son’s burgeoning sexual urges.
In the film’s minimalist plot, Christina’s invasive (and mutually exploitative) presence, coupled with the children’s natural need to push boundaries, will eventually turn the Father’s repressive regime inside-out – but for the most part Lanthimos simply observes the family’s bizarre daily routines and delusions. Any words referring to external phenomena (‘sea’, ‘motorway’, ‘excursion’, etc.) are reinterpreted, through Father’s homemade educational cassettes, to signify familiar domestic objects. The children are actively tricked into believing that the planes flying overhead are just toys, that the fish for their supper come from the swimming pool, that their new pet dog will be born from Mother’s belly, that Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon is in fact an ode to the joys of home life sung by their late Grandpa, and that just stepping outside the perimeter fence can lead to danger and death.
This is a closed system, where everything is inward-looking, so it seems only natural that the ‘night’s entertainment’ should involve the family watching home videos of itself – and that even the Son’s sexuality should eventually, after the experiment with Christina has been abandoned, receive an outlet that is entirely incestuous. If the children sometimes wear blindfolds in their games, this perfectly encapsulates the blinkered nature of their worldview – as does Thimios Bakataki’s measured cinematography, typically composing the shots so that parts of the characters remain unseen, outside of the frame. Similarly, Lanthimos’ exclusion of backstory, place names or other contextual markers ensures that viewers, too, feel they are being deprived of the complete picture. Dogtooth is as disorienting as it is unsettling, and the detached manner in which its shocking absurdities are recorded only adds to the film’s horror – as well as to its considerable dark humour.
Dogtooth is a true original, occupying its own private lot well off the mainstream grid, its nearest neighbours, each with their own brand of grim dysfunction and perverse rites of passage, being Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby (1993), Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), Ursula Meier’s Home (2008) or even Steven Sheil’s Mum & Dad (2008) – to say nothing of the recent real-life case of Josef Fritzl. Unlike the schlubbishly monstrous Father, however, Dogtooth evades charges of exploitation precisely by eschewing any fixed borders. For, as with the very best Greek tragedy, Lanthimos’ story of domestic extremes can accommodate broader sociopolitical readings, as the family’s twisted little world comes to dramatise the inner workings of patriarchy, isolationism and tyranny on any scale. Lanthimos’ film may be as blank-faced as the children at its core, but it is also resonant, disturbing, and brilliantly barking.