Movie review by Greg Carlson
Both perverse and perversely funny, Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Dogtooth” provides the curious viewer with a singular and all but impossible-to-forget experience. With each of its meticulously composed frames, the movie announces an ambitious technical agenda, matched shot for shot by an imaginative story often read as a kind of cautionary tale exploring the hazards of parental overprotection. The director also establishes a resolute moral distance from his subjects – accomplished in part via lengthy static takes – and Lanthimos’s refusal to judge their behavior, which includes the explicit exploration of the societal taboo of brother/sister incest, unsettlingly sanctioned and arranged by both mother and father, cements the film as a challenging and cerebral exercise.
Inside the well-appointed compound of a middle-aged businessman (Christos Stergioglou) and his wife (Michele Valley), a trio of adult children interacts with one another through the games, make-believe, and competition familiar to pre-teens. Subjected to all manner of inexplicable lessons and harsh punishments, the siblings study vocabulary tapes in which common meanings for words are replaced seemingly at whim (a “sea is a leather armchair” and a “motorway is a very strong wind”). Lanthimos deliberately erases any trace of history, background, and motive for this unorthodox upbringing, allowing the viewer to discover the contours of this strange enclave as the film unfolds.
Lanthimos rapidly makes clear that the now-grown offspring have never left the confines of their walled asylum and the unintended consequence of remaining within such a strict and shielded haven is a pressure-fueled tendency for the “kids” to act out with startling and unexpected violence. Further evidence of the family’s irregularity manifests in the visits of Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), the only character in the film identified by name. Hired by the father to satisfy the sexual urges of his son (Hristos Passalis), Christina sparks a series of changes experienced by the eldest daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia). Among the most transformative influences brought by Christina from the outside world is a series of VHS rentals of several Hollywood movies, including “Jaws,” “Rocky” and “Flashdance,” that inspires an intense, hysterical, and physical mania that threatens the father’s sovereign grip.
“Dogtooth” comments on gender in a variety of interesting ways, from the fierce and unchallenged authority of the powerful patriarch to the favoritism and entitlement enjoyed by the male child. When the brood misbehaves or disappoints, mother threatens to give birth to more family members, including a dog. Most tellingly, only the son’s carnal desires are acknowledged by the parents, while matters of sex for both female children are intentionally neglected until the young women are called to service the brother (following inspection, he chooses the older of the two). Lanthimos shrewdly assigns the emergent point of view to the senior sister, whose own sexual activity ironically accounts in part for the collapse of the carefully constructed universe.
The success of “Dogtooth” sprouts from its woozy blend of humor and horror, and like David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” the movie makes us laugh nervously at the recognition of the familiar as filtered through the distorted, the bizarre, and the grotesque. By assigning a peculiar kind of forced emotional and developmental impediment upon the “children,” Lanthimos invites us to consider the space, as well as the differences and similarities, between youth and adulthood. The childlike and often childish actions of the principal threesome mirror the familiar expectations, skewed logic and playful transactions of pre-adolescence, uncannily magnified by the physical maturity of the performers. “Dogtooth” is blackly comic but never bleak, and pays substantial rewards for appreciators of the absurd.