Dogtooth is like a backhand slap to the face after a night of heavy drinking: it sobers you up instantly. Greek Writer and Director Giorgos Lanthimos isn’t new to the festival circuit but certainly to the Academy Awards. The reason Dogtooth was nominated for best foreign film this year is due to the fact there is currently nothing else like it. Lanthimos has accomplished what he set out to do in his second feature Kinetta (2005), but which never quite hit the mark. The director’s favourite subject matter — disturbingly dysfunctional human relationships — are again present, as is the sparse yet sharp dialogue. Other Lanthimos motifs, like his signature wide flat shots immediately juxtaposed by odd inserts, are refined to perfection. From the moment the twisted world of this seemingly innocent family begins to reveal itself I was hooked.
I have always been a devotee of foreign Arthouse, the characters and the stories are more engaging than the typical Hollywood tripe. However Greek films were never on my to watch list. After a few major misses — Arcadia Lost (2010): B grade acting in a film about two teenagers lost in Greece; The Building Manager (2009): a wellworn story of male midlife crisis; and El Greco (2007): a bomb of an overacted period drama — I decided to give Greece a miss. Great Indie films should leave the audience with a scar; it’s something you never forget. But wooden acting and lack of substance were becoming a common thread, and once you’ve seen one Greek God film you’ve seen them all. However Dogtooth has brought me back to see what else I may have been missing, and I can’t wait to trade in the popcorn for a plate of meze and grapevine leaves.
Although it is classed as a Drama, Giorgos handles his subject matter with the pace of a thriller. The bizarre family of five the story centers around reveal their secrets in a way only a good thriller can, with perfect timing. Every reveal leaves you hanging on for the next so you can try to make some sense of their warped world. The characters are named Mother, Father, Son, Older Daughter and Younger Daughter, but what they lack in namesake they make up for in personality. Father and Mother are some seriously sick individuals who micromanage and manipulate their children in ways I once thought unimaginable. Unfortunately for the three adult children the audience will figure it all out before they get a chance.
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Christina the security guard at Father’s work is the only character with a name. She is brought to the house by Father and paid a few Euros to pleasure Son. Christina is under strict rules not to reveal the truth to the children, and when she breaks this rule by bribing older Daughter to give her cunnilingus (in exchange for a VHS tape of Rocky, nonetheless) all hell breaks loose; this is when the pace picks up and their world begins to unravel.
Aggeliki Papoulia who plays older Daughter is by far the breakout star. In only her third feature role she serves up a performance so on-the-money in many of her scenes I had to hold back from my bitting my nails down to the cuticle. There a quite a number of sex scenes in the 94 minutes, however none of them are remotely sexy often just perverse. Although shocking and disturbing are definitely words that spring to mind, Dogtooth isn’t shocking in a Gaspar Noe Irreversible (2002) sense, which should come with a warning attached: Wait two hours after eating before watching. Instead Dogtooth heads into territory similar to that of Lord Of The Flies (1990) or This Is England (2006). These films share children protagonists who’ve been led astray by adults and their environment, but all three fight against these influences and ultimately display that humans, after all is said and done, are essentially good. Some themes touched on include incest, self mutilation, violence, homosexuality, prostitution and animal cruelty. But don’t be put off, as Lanthimos handles them in such a manner that they’re not there for salacious kicks, but rather to genuinely push the story forward — whatever you do, do not cover your eyes at the climax.
Greek cinema appears to be on the mend. Younger filmmakers and edgier subject matter are definitely changing things for the better. Attenberg (2010), which was screened for the first time in the US this year at Sundance, was directed by Athina Tsangari and also produced by Lanthimos, and looks to be as and perfectly perverse as Dogtooth and not one to miss. We’ll keep an eye out.