Before the Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos directed The Favourite, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster he made the absurdist Greek film, Dogtooth, in 2009. The film opened to rave reviews despite its bold, unusual film-making style, and treatment of sex and violence.
Dogtooth is the third instalment of the 2020 9Lives Film Club. I bought this film on loot.co.za (they have a surprising amount of art-house films at a reasonable price) after the movie was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards.
If you haven’t heard about our movie club yet, you can have a look here.
Setting the scene
Wikipedia gives the official film synopsis as; “A controlling, manipulative father locks his three adult offspring in a state of perpetual childhood by keeping them prisoner within the sprawling family compound. The children are bored to tears in spite of distractions like Christina, an employee of their father’s who makes regular visits to sexually service the son. Increasingly curious about the outside world, the older daughter hatches a plan to escape.”
Critics choice awards
I think the NY Daily News summed up the film most accurately as a weird claustrophobic film reminiscent of Andy Warhol, Michael Haneke and Luis Bunuel. This movie, which provides an in-depth look at protectiveness, never names its characters, the children never leave the estate, and it presents a weird mix of sex and violence between the siblings.
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott compares Dogtooth to M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 hit The Village which also explores themes of isolation and protectiveness. Further to this, he also points out the fact that what makes the film even more disturbing is that it never offers an explanation as to its weirdness.
The cinematography which is also bizarre, almost dreamlike, is another thing that Scott comments on; “The light is gauzy and diffuse, helping to produce an atmosphere that is insistently and not always unpleasantly dreamlike. You might think of paintings by Balthus or maybe Alex Katz.”
The Guardian’s Phillip French agrees and adds; “Lanthimos directs in a simple, straightforward way, the editing unhurried, the camera movements unobtrusive. Everything is made to appear ordinary. But the more ordinary things seem, the more repellent and shocking we eventually find them.”
From this, it is clear that the film follows its own rules, and that it is influenced by several of the great filmmakers. Nicholas Rapold, also from The New York Times, comments on the modern structure that the film assumes; “(it) starts with a dystopian conceit, then mash together artificially heightened naïveté, sudden violence and perverse reticence. And as the father tries to tighten the familial screws, the film further tweaks taboos on incest and brutality toward the defenseless”.
Viewer’s choice award
This is not a feel-good film. Although it has been classified as a dark comedy, I don’t think that there are a lot of people that will be able to see the comedy and ignore the incest and violence. Which brings up an interesting question… why do we like watching films that make us uncomfortable?
While some will argue that exactly that is the nature of good art, others will attribute it to, especially with regards to this film, schadenfreude. What disturbs me even more than the overt violence and disengaged depiction of sex, is the lack of score. Watching a film that is very clearly trying to push you out of your comfort zone is worsened by the lack of music which usually provides us with emotional cues.
The reason for my initial interest in this film, except for my curiosity over its absurdness, was the fact that the film is done in Greek and I have only ever watched it with subtitles. That is important because subtitling was not only one of my majors at varsity and something I’ve always been interested in but because the parents in Dogtooth control the children in such a manner that the meaning of words is changed. So think about it, how complicated must it be to write subtitles for a Greek film where words do not mean what they usually mean and you need to find matches for these words in the target language.
If you’ve seen some of Lanthimos’ previous films and loved it, you’ll undoubtedly like this too. It is quite far removed from The Favourite, but I did find it similar to The Lobster. In a sense, it is more upbeat than The Lobster, but only because Dogtooth’s colour palette is white and neutrals, while The Lobster is known for its darker, moodier hues fitting to the desolation experienced by the main character.