Sea, Motorway, Excursion, Carbine. At least three of the four “new words of the day” to be learned by the three children at the start of Dogtooth (Kynodontas) could be associated with escape, while the word “escape” is itself unlikely to have entered their vocabulary. These children are actually adults, or at least on the cusp of adulthood, though they behave like pre-pubescents and have apparently never in their lives set foot beyond the confines of their family’s home, located somewhere in rural Greece, a clean, middle class fortress of self-imposed seclusion, complete with swimming pool, and nearly devoid of anything that denotes the contaminating influence of contemporary culture, which for some reason includes any consumer technology produced after about 1986. The parents have informed the children that they would have no chance of survival should they leave the property, and have taken a totalitarian approach to home-schooling, right down to the essentials of language acquisition. Sea, for example, is a leather armchair. Excursion is a very resistant material. A pussy is a big light. Dogtooth is a very strange, darkly hilarious, and rather ingenious movie. At least it seems strange while you’re watching it. Once it’s over, you may find yourself thinking it’s one of the most lucid studies of family life you’ve seen.
Why is that woman being driven blindfolded along a freeway at dusk? Why is that couple having sex while they both wear headphones? Dogtooth is crafted in such a way that context is rarely explicit. This extends to the composition of the frames, which will often depict only the torsos or legs of characters, or reveal only one speaker in a conversation. (I’ve already told you more than you’d probably ascertain in the first 20 minutes.) But the movie is far too playful, attentive, and mischievous to label as withholding. What it does, and does very well, is allow us to gradually understand the rules of its cloistered world largely from the limited perspective of its inhabitants. There’s what we might call an anthropological rigour to Dogtooth. It’s about a kind of social experiment with unintentional yet deeply sinister implications. The family property even resembles a cult compound. Where our story goes is, I think, eerily logical, though it’s also, I think, oddly hopeful.
In a video interview included on Kino’s new DVD, director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos, explains that the initial impulse behind Dogtooth was to make a science-fiction film that imagines life in a future where families are becoming extinct, so the parents at the centre of our story must go to extremes to preserve theirs. The movie Lanthimos made no longer bears the trappings of sci-fi, but it’s certainly easy enough to locate the essentially primal urges that motivate the parents: a desire to protect the clan at all costs; a desire to maintain a sense of (false) purity for as long as possible; and most of all a desire to redesign the world to your liking and raise your children within it. Such desires inevitably lead to disaster, but they’re still not that hard to identify with.
Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2009 and easily the biggest surprise among this year’s Oscar nods—it’s been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film—Dogtooth has clearly made an impression. It’s as entertaining as it is insightful and twisted, climaxing with a living room talent show in which the eldest child (the fearless and inventive Aggeliki Papoulia) reinterprets a sequence of Flashdance while her brother plays bad classical guitar—having no one to compare himself to, he probably thinks he’s a prodigy. The performances are uniformly detailed and focused, founded in regulated behaviour rather than conventional character development. You’d never guess these were actually normal people. I saw two of them at a party during the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, where Dogtooth had its Canadian premiere, and I was amazed to see them chatting and laughing and sipping cocktails. If they can go through all that and come out of it so seemingly civilized, there may truly be hope for all of us.
Aside from being newly available on DVD, Dogtooth is also playing at Toronto's Royal Cinema, where it can be enjoyed on a double-bill with Attenberg, the likeminded film which stars Lanthimos and was directed by Dogtooth's co-producer Athina Racehl Tsangari