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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: Dogtooth (2009)

* * * *

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Christos Passalis, Mary Tstoni

Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth is, without question, one of the strangest and most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. While I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film quite like it, the themes that it explores are not uncommon to film or literature. It’s a story about authority, blind adherence to it and rebellion against it, and about how the institution protects itself from being undermined and destroyed. It is a tale at once universal and incredibly specific, pushed past just about every conceivable boundary and into the realm of the absurd and bizarre. It isn’t a movie you “like,” exactly, but it’s definitely one that leaves its mark.

Dogtooth begins with a scene of indoctrination as the story’s three unnamed teenagers, two daughters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) and son (Christos Passalis), listen to a tape which informs them of the new words for the day, their meanings completely distorted (“sea,” for example, means the large leather chair in the living room). The family lives inside a large, walled compound, with only the father (Christos Stergioglou), a factory owner, ever leaving to go to and from work, while the mother (Michelle Valley) is a prisoner by choice, staying inside the walls surrounding the property in order to keep an eye on the children, who have never ventured beyond. They have no knowledge of the outside world, having been raised to believe that it is a place of great danger and that they once had a brother who went outside the walls and has since been killed by nature’s most ferocious creature – the cat.

The children are completely at the mercy of their parents, their lack of knowledge and complete dependence keeping them in a state of intense arrested development. Their minds have remained fixed at the level of young children, but the parents’ control over them can only extend so far. The parents accept, for example, that physical/sexual maturation is something they can’t prevent (though they only seem to accept it as inevitable for the son), and deal with the issue by arranging for Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a woman who works in the father’s factory, to visit the compound to have sex with the son. But no matter how tight the parents’ control of the minds and bodies of their children are, they can’t stamp out the restlessness that makes humans, well, human and which drives us to discover, to learn, and to rebel against oppression. This natural inclination, coupled with proximity to an outsider (Christina) with information about the world leads the family to what seems to them like crisis, but seems to anyone else like freedom.

Watching Dogtooth, particularly during the scenes where the parents actively mislead the children, manipulating language and using fear as a means of keeping the children in line, I was reminded of 1984. While the film is ostensibly about a family that has become twisted by the unwillingness of the patriarch and matriarch to allow the children to have any kind of autonomy or control, it is ultimately a political allegory about how society functions through the suppression of the masses by those who control the cultural narrative. The children are innocents being “protected” by those in power from the knowledge that they are deemed unprepared to properly process. If that notion doesn't sound familiar, then you haven't been paying attntion to the news over the course of the last decade.

Dogtooth is a supremely strange movie that often verges on the uncomfortable, particularly during the sequence where the parents have to reconcile their decision that outsiders will no longer be allowed in the compound with their acknowledgment that the son still has needs that need to be met. Lanthimos steadily pushes the narrative further and further, raising the bar for tension and strangeness with every successive scene. It’s a mesmerizing movie that you can’t look away from – even when you want to.

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