Monday, August 16, 2010

Dogtooth (2009, Yorgos Lanthimos)

Often, when critics extol a movie for being imaginative and creative, they do so in order to praise flights of fancy that make their hearts leap with joy, such as the works of Hayao Miyazaki or the geniuses at Pixar. So what to make of a film like Dogtooth, a film that’s as imaginative as any film I’ve seen this year, but in a particularly dark vein? True, Dogtooth is set in a recognizable real-world setting- a suburban family home- but for all intensive purposes it might as well be another world.

The unnamed family at the center of Dogtooth is one founded not on love but rather an insidious sort of mindfuckery, in which the parents have barricaded their children in the house from birth and taught them to fear the outside world. The high wall that surrounds the family’s property speaks most plainly to their isolationism, but many of the parents’ manipulations are more subtle, as when the children are taught words describing the outside, only to have them (mis-)defined as objects that remind them of domestic comfort, as when they associate the word “sea” with a wooden armchair. There’s even an unseen brother character, possibly apocryphal, who is said to lurk just outside the walls, until the father deems it necessary to invent a story in which he was murdered by a house cat that infiltrated the property.

What’s going on here? It’s fairly obvious that the parents are psychotic, even before we see their more, shall we say, extreme punishments. Yet Lanthimos clearly has more on his mind than simply showing a pair of nutjobs who Fate had the sordid sense of humor to allow to meet each other and breed. No, Dogtooth is a rather pointed commentary on the destructiveness of over-parenting. Throughout the film, the parents’ methods point to a desire to shelter their children from the harshness of the world while enforcing their authority over their offspring. But by isolating their children (almost) completely from the world’s evils, they have reduced them to little more than animals themselves, prone to violence against themselves and each other.

Moreover, at a certain point it’s clear that the parents are more interested in perpetuating the experiment than they are in turning their children into well-rounded adults, as most parents would desire. The key scene in the film comes after one of the daughters attacks the son in his sleep. When the father rushes into the room, the son accuses his sister, but she turns around and blames it on a much-feared cat, who invaded the room wielding a hammer. Obviously, the father (the only one who is permitted to travel into the outside world) knows this is a lie. But to admit as much would mean puncturing the elaborate lie he and his wife have worked so hard to create, so he lets it slide. Pretty telling, I’d say.

Of course, in a family so cut off from the outside world, any external influence that is introduced would be exaggerated, and this happens when one of the father’s female employees is permitted to visit the home regularly, ostensibly to provide the son an outlet for his sexual longings. The woman also sometimes smuggles in contraband items for the girls- first a headband, then some videotapes- that she trades for sexual favors. Eventually, watching movies like Rocky and Flashdance brings out a sense of rebellion in the eldest daughter, but Lanthimos refuses to make this rebellion cathartic for the audience. Sure, the girl begins to assert her independence, but after two decades of isolation she’s ill-prepared for it, and when she decides to break free, the results are harrowing.

The same could be said for the whole of Dogtooth. With only his second film, Lanthimos has created a film so unique in tone- call it “absurdist tragedy”- that it announces him as a formidably gifted filmmaker. Not only does Lanthimos tap vividly into a deep-seated parental fear- that our efforts to shelter and protect our children may be hurting them rather than helping- but he does it with such skill that Dogtooth is an exciting work of art even when it becomes borderline unbearable to watch. It’s a major achievement, and an early front-runner for my favorite film of the year.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

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