Friday, 11 February 2011

Cinema Strange #6. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009)

Aggeliki Papoulia in Dogtooth (2009)

Dogtooth is a tough film to review. Its plot is so bizarre as to actively dissuade interest, and none of those whom it draws in will agree on its point, if indeed it even has one. As it stands, I'm undecided. On the one hand Lanthimos' Kinetta (2007) follow-up is a boldly imaginative work, compelling for its abstraction and originality. But on the other, it could just be a deceptively shallow exposé of nothing in particular, determined to craft talking points rather than characters, or build scenarios I can care about. I don't even know if I enjoyed it. I was fascinated and repulsed, and perhaps a little disappointed. And yet all I want to do is go back and re-watch it...

Dogtooth certainly features the most interestingly dislocated variant on the English language since A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), and while some might call this a quick-fix to obscurity, I actually found it the most compelling and resonant aspect of the movie: a frequent reminder of just how cut-off these kids really are. Language is our most basic tool of expression, next to walking it's the first thing we learn, and with it we can share knowledge and feeling. Finding your own voice is the most important and difficult part of growing up, but the kids in Dogtooth are part of a hermetic system of misinformation, who have falsely absorbed language and think that the word "pussy" refers to a great light (this is what they're told by their Mother, played by Michele Valley). Father (Christos Stergioglou) tells them that cats are the fiercest killers in the natural world, and that they tore apart the sibling's exiled brother, who lives on the other side of the closed-off fence. Is there a brother on the other side? If so, what happened to him? It matters little, as what follows the scene of the Son's (Hristos Passalis) first encounter with a cat (a darkly hilarious sequence involving garden shears) is a practical lesson in how to defend yourself against them - drop down on all fours and bark. But this scene, while also uncomfortably funny, serves a greater thematic purpose...

The most literal interpretation of events (there's political allegory here, but I'm not qualified to expound on it) is to read the film as an essay on the way parents abuse their children through love, demanding submission while issuing unreachable goals. Roger Ebert, who approached the film similarly, ends his review with a provocative statement; "God help children whose parents insanely demand unquestioning obedience to their deranged standards." As far as the film's ethics are concerned I think he's spot-on, but that sentence raises some further ideas about its world. It's questionable whether events are even taking place on this planet, but if they are I propose this: the universe of Dogtooth is a Godless one. Consider the scene where Mother tells her children she is expecting twins and a dog, but that she could postpone the birth depending on their behavior. What does this mean? She's clearly not pregnant, so where do the children come from? Where do these children come from? Are they adopted or, worse, manufactured? Of course she can't really give birth to a dog either - she refers to the animal that Father is having trained up to a Level 5 standard. What that means is never made totally clear, but the trainer talks about moulding the mind of the dog, and (this statement is never explicitly used) creating it in the image of its owner. That's what the parents are doing. They're building life by their standards, re-teaching evolution, teaching of sin through practical experience and rewarding obedience with choices of evening entertainment. Language doesn't exist in any recognizable form, nor do moral or ethic principles. This is a Godless universe because the parents have made themselves God - and at what cost?

The more I write about Dogtooth, the more I like it. This is a film that needs to be revisited often, as everyone will have a different interpretation of events and that judgement will be constantly challenged. I noticed a similarity between this film and the Mexican drama (based on true events) El castillo de la pureza (Ripstein, 1973), and those who have seen it will likely approach Dogtooth from a peculiar point of familiarity, which is sure to subconsciously affect the viewing experience. I still remain positively baffled by Lanthimos' vision, which is best described as uneven. It made my skin crawl. It made me laugh. It made me angry and confused and thrilled and bored. There is no narrative drive, just a series of scenes that escalate in their strangeness. I know I'll be re-watching it very, very soon...

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