A black comic poem of dysfunction, a veritable operetta of self-harm, this brilliantly bizarre film from Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos is superbly acted and icy controlled – gripping from the opening scenes. development doesn’t stop any longer than this. dogtooth could be read as a superlative example of absurdist cinema, or possibly something completely opposite: a clinically intimate piece of psychological realism. Watching this, and alternately gaping at the unconsciously shocking scenes of violence, frustrated sexuality, and unexpressed pain between siblings, I was reminded of Alan Bennett’s dictum that all families have a secret: they are not like other families. but I can’t imagine any family being as different from others as this one.
Somewhere in the Greek countryside, a wealthy middle-aged businessman and paterfamilias (played by Christos Stergioglou) has a beautiful house with beautiful gardens and a beautiful swimming pool, which this family seems to manage without outside help. He has a quietly submissive wife (Michelle Valley) and three handsome children in their twenties: two daughters and a son, played by Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni and Hristos Passalis. so far, so healthy.
but something is very wrong with this image. The children, as it becomes chillingly clear, are infantilized: they have never been allowed to leave the family compound and, like Baron von Trapp’s children responding to a naval whistle, have been obedience-trained like dogs, barking and jumping all over the place. parts. four on command, but also able to walk and talk like convincing human beings, though their conversation has a strained quality, as if they’re in a light hypnosis-induced trance.
their education has been a parody of homeschooling in which mom and dad have deliberately taught them the wrong meaning of words, perhaps to shield them from outside reality, to make this reality meaningless and unreadable and therefore blurry and messy. its very existence. this grotesque anti-teaching is a symptom of their parents’ own shock and trauma, an alienation they have fanatically passed on to their children. The father pays his factory security guard, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to come to the house (blindfolded) and sexually service the son, an arrangement that ends angrily when he learns that Christina is a badass. influence for his daughters, before deciding that the arrangement can be carried out, so to speak, internally.
The key to the mystery may lie in a missing relative and a Doberman that evidently, paradoxically, the owner of the house has decided to have trained by a professional outside the family group.
It is a film from southern Europe, which bears the influence of something more from northern Europe. With its pristine clarity, cold light, and expressionless pangs of violence, it unmistakably resembles something by Michael Haneke or his Austrian contemporaries, Ulrich Seidl and Jessica Hausner. it also brought to my anglo-saxon mind william golding and ian mcewan’s early fiction. The scalp-itching strangeness of a family that is outwardly normal but privately hideous inevitably invites memories of Josef Fritzl and the hold of him, and also for me, at a distance, Haneke’s seventh continent. maybe the two sinister kids in the fun games grew up in a dog-toothed household.
Despite all this, lanthimos’s film has a black and even jocular sense of humor. has a brilliant opening sequence in which children are solemnly taught wrong meanings of the words “sea”, “highway” and “excursion”, with wrong contexts. a “zombie” is a yellow flower, leading the son to the gentle, childlike delight of finding a mate in the garden. These people try to live their stunted lives according to Borges’s Chinese Encyclopedia of Impossible Definitions or Monty Python’s Hackenthorpe’s Book of Lies. however, even here reality will intrude. pressed for the meaning of “cunt,” which the children have found written on one of their parents’ private videotapes, the mother blurts out that it means “a great light,” and recklessly rushes to demonstrate its use: “the cunt goes out and the house is plunged into darkness. a psychoanalyst would have a field day with that, but unfortunately there are no psychoanalysts available.
the humor is not entirely cruel, nor alienated. at one point, the son tells the family during one of their meals that they ran out of black eyebrow dye and that he can’t use blue dye, because that wouldn’t be natural. the line offers something not available from haneke: a big laugh.
The film is superbly shot, with some deadpan and elegant compositions, and intentionally lopsided framing of the “headless” variety that Lucrecia Martel used in her film La mujer sin cabeza, absorbing both the characters’ sociopathy and, at the same time, time, the reality television surveillance aesthetic of the big brother’s house. lanthimos captures your attention with wonderfully inscrutable imagery, like trees dappled with Hockneyesque sunlight from the pool. is a film about the essential strangeness of something that society insists is the benchmark of normalcy: the family, a walled city-state with its own autocratic rule and untold secrets.