Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dogtooth. (2010) Giorgos Lanthimos

The first initial thought that comes to mind regarding Dogtooth is the cinema of Épater la bourgeoisie. Literally, "shock the middle classes," the rallying cry came to artistic fruition in the post-silent surrealist films of Buñuel and Dalí. The famous razor cutting the eye scene in Un chien andalou (1929) is the same lightning jolt of cinematic shock reincarnated in Dogtooth's scene of a teenage girl taking a hammer to her face trying desperately to extract the title's tooth.

But while Dogtooth contains that same edge of grittiness and mixed surrealism throughout, it cannot simply be swept away, dismissed as unbridled decadence. The coming of age story from Greece is the most bizarre and disturbing film on screens so far this year, focusing all its strength on an isolated family, a wife and children literally held captive by an authoritarian husband/father. But an outright dismissal, even in the wake of scenes that left me wishing I weren't included in the viewing process, would be a reading void of interpretations regarding governing lies and communal order, whether in family mode or nationalistic oppression, and the misinformation in those atmospheres put in place to hold rule intact.

This probing of a family lied to and stashed away in a "bunker" reminded me of no particular film I've seen but brought to mind lyrics of one of my favorite Arcade Fire songs: "We know it's just a lie / Scare your son, scare your daughters / Every time you close your eyes -- Lies! Lies!"

At the heart of the story is an eccentric, reclusive family of five -- or six, and maybe soon to be eight or nine, depending on how you interpret some of mom and dad's lies -- wherein the visible children, two daughters in their mid-teens and a son around the same age, live in an industrialist's large house, deceived about the outside world and unable to make contact with it. A large wall is built around the home. The children aren't allowed to cross over and have never been on the other side, where they've been told a supposed 'nother brother might live. They toss things to him to see if he'll react. They gaze at the fence in fascinated wonder, unsatisfied with the large house and outdoor swimming pool in the home they've always known.

Dad is the great deceiver. He's the only one with the key and the car to get outside the family property. He brings home a woman from work to take care of the sexual needs of his son. He teaches the children wrong words for items he doesn't want them to understand. He plants large fish in the swimming pool to plant the notion that dangerous outsiders can appear at any time. When the fish are finally noticed by one of his daughters he descends into the pool with a spear.

Dad has no background which defines him, no dialogue which explains his need for control. Perhaps he is better left not understood, only known as a sore source of power, a character who will bowl you over, whether through psychological means -- the withholding of information, the enforcing of his will -- and even physical assaults, attacks which finally give us a visual of his rotten core.

Mom stays home with the kids, also obedient to dad and his ways. We're never quite sure whether they're creating this world together, whether she's fully vested in the home's drama or whether she's held like a slave, like a 50s businessman's trophy wife, lapping at the heels of her husband. Other than dad she is the closest to the outside world -- she hides a telephone in her bedroom so she can call him at work when she needs.

A kitten wanders onto the property while Dad is gone to work. As the daughters cling to each other inside, staring out the living room window, screaming in blinding fear, son takes a large axe and chops the cat to a bloody screaming death in the front yard. Dad later warns about these dangerous cats -- they are preying monsters to be feared. He teaches mom and the children to get on all fours and bark like dogs to protect the property.

One of the reason the Arcade Fire song is so fitting are the themes of lying to your offspring about the nature of human sexuality. Dogtooth in places, ever so severely deals with the ramifications of hiding truth from innocent eyes, as maturing kids now begin to awaken. With no one to provide direction and with no nourishing guidance from their parents, what more would we expect of the kids than to completely misunderstand their sexual identities and become thoroughly screwed up?

When the outsider, the workmate originally brought home to satisfy the son, becomes more of a burden than an answer, introducing foreign concepts in a home that won't allow it, the relationships that were once just typical of sibling rivalry -- playing games to see who could hold their breath the longest, who could find mom first with a blindfold, who could take on the greater pain or wake up first from passing out -- become immoral without even the knowledge of the fruit they bit into. It's the innocence of the Garden without the Knowledge of the Tree. They become sad in their daily dealings; adult depression drifts into minds held captive in first grade.

Dogtooth has a linear-driven, naturalist style that occasionally plummets surrealist, almost Lynchian horror and avant-garde boundary pushing of social order and acceptance. Incestuous scenes are an affront to any intelligent watcher, and yet here, in this family, with these misplaced taboos and outlandish domestic priorities, you've got to think that the wrong that happens is exactly how it would naturally play out. This in turn is a statement about whatever anti-authoritarian stance you wish to read into, interpret or suggest.

The director is on record for letting the film speak for itself. He is open to the interpretation of the viewer. For this viewer it is both sickening and illustrative. It's a film I can't recommend for anyone but contains certain ideals I wish to recommend for all. It suggests a harder life when idly buying into the lies of those who have walked in front of you. It wants you to question your authority figure, and suggests there are consequences when you don't. It is the reality of existence when held at a distance from mom and dad's unspoken private lives.

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