Saturday, September 19, 2009

TIFF '09: "People can't help it if they're monsters..." Two films about weird families

By isolating its family from the rest of the world, Greek writer/director Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (Kynodontas) arguably gets a little closer to the bone with regards to just how deeply our parents impress upon us all an idea of how the world supposedly works, how we might find a reasonably safe place in it, should we ever have the opportunity. Depicting the quotidian routines of three adult children and their mother, the lot of them confined to a fairly luxurious gated country home by their patriarch, the film is essentially a smart, very dark comedy, only gradually yielding its insights and particular heights of strangeness.

The family’s cloistered existence is made replete through the appropriation and nearly surrealist manipulation of language. The sea is a chair. A motorway is a strong wind. A pussy is a big light, which if shut off leaves us engulfed by darkness. The planes that fly overhead are toys, and the children long for one to fall from the sky so they can possess it. Their obedience is ensured through the invention of artificial dangers while their sexual education is provided by anonymous guests procured by their tireless dad. But with time a serpent will enter their garden, bringing with it VHS tapes of
Rocky and Flashdance, and their innocence is doomed to be broken.

Dogtooth creeps up on you, and by its end presents us with a surprisingly resonant equation and an elegant final image. Lanthimos’ style is detached, in keeping with the wryly anthropological nature of the whole premise, leaving the actors to really breathe life into the whole, which they do a truly remarkable job at, one deserving of some special ensemble award. I saw one of them at a festival party and was tempted to say hi, but the mariachi band was very loud, I felt shy, and wasn’t quite sure how to tell her that I really loved the way she liked her sister’s arm.

Another very different, if equally uneasy examination of family,
Life During Wartime (nothing, sadly, to do with the Talking Heads masterpiece of first-person terrorist funk pop) is Todd Solondz’s sequel to Happiness. This leads us of course to more couples crying in restaurants, but also to a continuation of its predecessor’s enquiry into living with despair, uncertainty, and most especially pedophilia. “People can’t help it if they’re monsters,” declares Bill (Ciarán Hinds), himself a convicted pedophile. The statement is hardly a satisfying conclusion in itself, but Solondz seems interested in exploring the theme of forgiveness as much if not more than that of understanding, and forgiveness becomes an unusually fraught topic of conversation here given that a number of the characters are Israel sympathizers.

Life During Wartime ultimately feels less than fully realized, and its plot turns on a few pretty thin conceits, though it does have some superb sequences that could almost stand alone as fragments of some greater study of how emotionally crippled adults negotiate their way through thorny realms of need. I couldn’t help but wonder if it may have been more affecting had it used its original cast, but I can’t complain about the new one assembled, which beside the weirdly fearsome Hinds includes the always wonderful Allison Janney, Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy, and Paul Reubens as a ghost.

More TIFF a-coming...

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