That it was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars has a double meaning, because the Greek film Dogtooth reinvents word meanings, too. From the first lines, we hear the three grown up children (in all senses young adults) absorbing a notion that a “sea” is a chair, and that carbine is a “beautiful white bird.” These substitute meanings of common words come from their parents, a bespectacled father (played by Christos Stergioglou) and worrisome mother (Michelle Valley)—who together have quarantined their children from the outside world on a spacious compound with a swimming pool. With no idea of what lurks beyond the tall fencing, these children buy everything they’re told by their parents wholesale. That is—they are promised—until the day their dogtooth falls out, which will be the indication that they’re fit for the sordid world beyond. Dogteeth don’t just fall out, but they don’t know that. Just as they don’t know what a “pussy” or a “zombie” is. They only know what is conveyed to them, and what’s conveyed is protective code, lies, fables and overly simplistic notions.
If it sounds crazy, it is. Young adults imprisoned from childhood by neurotic parents smacks of the kind of experimentalism that Paul Auster’s City of Glass touched on (sensory deprivation being the next step). That the movie hits on creepier chords by dint of the situational demands—incest, feline fear, airplanes falling from the sky and appearing as toys in the lawn, blindfolds, stickers as merits, the family on all fours barking like dogs—brings it at times closer to the odd goings-on in the 1970 cult classic, Girly.
On that note, the overly excessive protectiveness of the parents is never fully explained, and the situation unravels when the father brings home a female security guard from his job site to take care of his son’s sexual needs. Arriving by blindfold, she can’t help but infect the house with slivers of outside reality, and indeed, she bargains with the material pieces she possesses (hair gel, a “sparkly” headband, VHS versions of Rocky and Jaws) in return for cunnilingus from the elder daughter. These passages play out without understanding of consequence or emotion, which is true to the innocence of the elder daughter. The whole movie remains as true.
That’s why it’s a brilliant film. The way director Yorgos Lanthimos’ story is told completely sells this compound life as very real. Thimios Bakatatakis cinematography is beyond innovative with its long, sustained often-headless shots—it is tailored to the idiosyncratic feel of the film, to the bizarreness of the translation. The story keeps in touch with the outside world via the father who works at a job in a drab factory. He drives a Volvo. He cuts the labels off of water bottles he brings home. He slashes his work clothes to make a point that the children’s brother—an imaginary son who lives on the other side of the wall—has been killed despite his struggle. He brings live fish home to the pool, and the children think they magically appear there. We have no idea why the compulsions are what they are to keep the children in the dark. The characters aren’t happy, they are vaguely sad. Ignorance doesn’t go near bliss.
But for a $250,000 budget Lanthimos made 96 minutes of compelling theater, and Dogtooth succeeds on every front. Its biggest feat? Rolling out the question of how far fabricated reality can go—not just in a confined space such as this Greek compound, but in a confined idea in the larger sense. In fact by reminding us that reality, by its own elusive nature, can’t help but be anything but a fabrication when left to man’s devices.
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