When I saw Alps last spring at the San Francisco International Film Festival, it amused but perplexed me, and I gave it a positive but lukewarm B. Several people then told me that I needed to see Giorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, Dogtooth.
Last night, I saw Dogtooth, and they were right. It had the strange, dark, downplayed humor of Alps, but it also made sense. This story of a family so loving its criminal was an experience to savor.
By the way, I streamed Dogtooth off HuluPlus. You probably already know that Hulu streams almost the entire Criterion Collection. But they also offer excellent films from Miramax and Kino–the company presenting Dogtooth to American audiences.
But back to the picture:
Here we have the perfect, upper-middleclass nuclear family: a dad who’s a successful executive, a stay-at-home mom, and three home-schooled teenagers. And when I say "stay-at-home mom," I mean it. She hasn’t left the property in years. As far as I could tell, the kids have never left. Their parents brazenly lie to them, scaring them with dangers of the outside world and making up fake definitions for problematic words. When the son, at the dinner table, asks his mom to "Please pass the phone," she gives him the salt and he accepts it.
But the son and two daughters have reached an age where they need another kind of companionship. By the time we meet the family, they’ve found a solution for the boy. A young woman–a security guard in the dad’s company–visits on a regular basis to have sex with the son. She does it not for love or desire, but for cash, although she’s developed a moderate friendship with his two sisters. But even that becomes sexual in a weird, suppressed way.
Dogtooth contains several sex scenes, some nearly as explicit as hardcore pornography, and it occasionally even slips across that line. There’s one inarguably hardcore shot–apparently from a real porn flick–briefly visible on television, and I suspect that one sex scene between main characters was for real. Not that they looked like they were having fun. Lanthimos films sex as if it’s a boring and somewhat annoying chore. There’s nothing remotely erotic in Dogtooth.
Nor should there be. These people are emotionally stunted, and incapable of real pleasure or excitement. This is especially true with the oldest daughter (no one in the family has a name). She brims with violent feelings that sometimes come out in violent actions. In an early scene, she cuts body parts off one of her dolls while screaming in mock terror and pain. Later, she will do much worse.
Lanthimos shot and cut Dogtooth in a style so plain and matter-of-fact that it becomes avant-garde. The camera looks straight on, seldom or never moving, with few cuts. People’s faces are frequently out of the shot. The actors play their parts in a reserved, almost deadpan way. As any Buster Keaton fan knows, properly-done deadpan delivery makes the gags funnier.
And make no mistake about it: Despite some horrifying outbursts of violence, Dogtooth will make you laugh, even when the cold darkness of its satire sears your bones in the terror of what some parents will do out of what they think is love.
Which brings up another issue: Are Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou going after more than just overly-protective parents? I think so. As with Alps, I suspect that there’s a political agenda to this family story. These parents could represent a totalitarian government, providing their children (the citizens?) with everything they need except freedom and the truth.
I’m giving Dogtooth an A.