Dir. Giorgos Lanthimos
(2010, Not Rated, 93 min)
★ ★ ★ ½
I streamed Dogtooth on Netflix. The website then gives you a choice of star ratings: one star means “hated it,” two means “didn’t like it,” three means “liked it,” four means “really liked it,” and five means “loved it.” I don’t think this film quite qualifies for a star rating (take mine with a grain of salt). I think it might be a very good film, but I didn’t like it. It doesn’t want to be liked. It wasn’t made to be liked. “Like” is probably not an appropriate response. It’s disturbing but at the same time absurdly funny. How could it be funny? I keep coming back to that great line from No Country for Old Men, when Tommy Lee Jones tells a grisly story, then says, “I laugh myself sometimes. Ain’t a whole lot else you can do.”
As far as I can tell, it’s a meditation on socialization – or the lack thereof. It takes place among a Greek family led by Father (Christos Stergioglou), who perpetrates, along with his complicit wife (Michele Valley) what is probably among the worst child abuse ever committed to a movie screen. He keeps his three adult children locked in their family home, not by force but by a lifetime of lies and indoctrination. They believe it’s not safe beyond the grounds of their estate. A fourth sibling is referenced who may or may not exist. The Father uses this unseen child as an example to keep the other three in line and explains that this disobedient boy was mauled to death by a stray cat – not a tiger or leopard, mind you, but a housecat. It’s a scary world out there, and only when they lose a “dogtooth” – their adult canine teeth, which of course are never supposed to come out – will they know they’re ready to leave.The son (Hristos Passalis) has sexual needs, as grown men do. It’s unlikely that he properly understands his own body, but Father nevertheless enlists a female security guard from his factory to service the young man. Why this woman participates in the abuse is never made clear, but she goes beyond the call of duty and consequently threatens the compound by introducing VHS tapes of films like Rocky and Jaws to the older daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia). How Father deals with this transgression is as shockingly brutal as the rest of his parenting would indicate.
This might seem to be an indictment of homeschooling. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s more about the fragility of human development, about how wrong words, meanings, and ideas can annihilate a person’s ability to exist in the world. There’s a family dog that Father has sent to be trained. The trainer explains that a dog is like clay to be molded, waiting to be taught how to behave. It’s the same with children, and the way Father has molded his children is deliberately, methodically evil.
Director Giorgos Lanthimos approaches the material in an unadorned style. His camera is usually stationary. His compositions are often curious and off-center. There is no musical score. He observes the story without embellishing it, which is probably the only way to approach it; any stylistic flourish would bring him perilously close to exploitation. He doesn’t comment on the material, but in this case I think showing it is comment enough.
Note: Dogtooth is an Academy Award nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film.