Harrowing, yet comically dark, look at a twisted family dynamic, rife with Freudian issues.
When Josef Fritzl was arrested, in April 2008, his horrendous acts of
assault, sexual abuse and captivity against his daughter opened up a
rather large can of worms. Thankfully, some good seems to have come from
the whole affair in the shape of the brilliantly biting look at family life in Dogtooth.
When a young person wants to rebel against the powers that be there
are any number of routes they take. Drink, drugs and loud music are
popular outlets. What would happen then, if three teenage siblings are
kept in a house, isolated from society, with only themselves and a Frank
Sinatra vinyl for company? The outcome is predictably violent, frustrating and at times heartbreaking.
The children, known only as the eldest, son, and youngest are kept
within the confines of their home by their parents, for reasons hinted
at but never really confirmed. Under the control of their father (Stergioglou)
the family is taught a customised vocabulary and values. Within their
gates, planes are toys that fall from the sky, cats are flesh eating
monsters and small yellow flowers are zombies. The whole act could be beautiful if it wasn’t so perverse.
The shaky hormonal balance is further upturned with the arrival of Christina (Anna Papoulia)
bought in by the father to satisfy his son’s sexual urges. It’s here
that events begin to crash into each other and the eldest (Aggeliki Papoulia)
starts to rebel. In any other context this would just be another moody
teen but this rebellion stems from an innocence that proves fascinating.
Her character is by far the most complex and interesting to watch, as a
girl relied upon as a leader whilst battling her adolescence and the
strict, sometimes abusive command of her parents. She is the most
curious and the most angry, but also the most considerate.
Father is equally textured but without as much of an explanation why,
perhaps to the story’s disadvantage. Whereas he is shown expressing
genuinely tender moments with his wife and children, there is a presence
about him that suggests malice and the need to control. The drastic
circumstances that unfold after the arrival of Christina raise the
question of whether this man will put his need for power over the children’s wellbeing, at any cost.
The film has already caused a riot at Cannes, earning the Un Certain Regard award.
And you can see why, although there is not much to offer in terms of
mis en scene it is an elegant piece of cinema, capturing a completely
unique innocence through sequences in a swimming pool or fighting only
as young siblings would.
It’s not without impact either, and Lanthimos certainly
doesn’t spare the viewer for the more shocking elements of the story. At
times he places them square in front of horror whilst at others he pans
slightly away from the scene’s focus, allowing audiences to form their
own interpretations of what is happening.
A lot of the story in fact is left open to interpretation. The
children’s ages for example could be anything from 15 to 25, whilst the
time in which it is set remains relatively open. The mother’s stance in
this also remains a mystery; at times there are hints of her
disapproval, but then she is shown down on all fours with her children barking at a flesh eating cat. Even the conclusion isn’t definitive.
Perhaps the purpose of this dark insight into a tailored reality
though is to stir a multitude of what-ifs in its audience. It shows the
extremes of rebellion in the smallest of forms, be it cutting an arm or
watching a Rocky VHS, and all the while it seems to come more alive with
its three central characters. The narrative needs a little more
explanation to truly show the traits of the family, but otherwise this
is a powerful, thoughtful and anguished piece of cinema that perfectly illustrates the harm of oppression and the mystifying path of adolescence.
is by no means based on Fritzl’s exploits, although there are
parallels, but takes a close look at the idea of parents nurturing their
children into something other than what is considered to be ‘normal’.
The family, at the centre of Dogtooth, are your ‘normal’ nuclear
unit: two parents and three children – two daughters and one son – all
live in a large house somewhere in the Greek hills. What sets them apart
from any other family you encounter is that the only member of the
household to ever leave the house is the controlling father (Stergioglou),
the rest remain in the confines of the estate and lead a very unusual
existence. The children have no concept of the world outside and are
taught that beyond the boundaries of the house is a wild and vicious
land. Content in their lives, the children play games such as who can
endure pain the longest. However, when father brings home Christina (Kalaitzidou), to fulfil his son’s sexual urges, she accidentally alerts the eldest daughter (Papoulia) to the realities outside.
To simply dismiss the family dysfunctional is to miss the point of
Dogtooth. In fact, if anything, they are more functional than most
families. The difference being that the children, all in the early to
mid 20s, are utterly brainwashed by their parents. To such an extent
that they believe planes are merely toys that sometimes drop into the garden,
and that words in their vocabulary are skewed so as to prevent the
children understanding their actual purpose. An example being a
saltshaker is referred to as a phone. So when the children over hear
their mother talking on the actual phone in her bedroom they are
convinced she is simply talking to herself.
It all sounds heavy handed but writer/director Lanthimos injects a wonderful sense of comedy
into the proceedings. In order to prevent the children ever venturing
beyond the gates of the house they are informed they have a brother who
lives out in the wilderness. That is until said ‘brother’ is killed by a
vicious cat and so the children must learn to bark like dogs should a
cat ever enter their tranquil world. Of course, the absent brother may
be the clue as to the parents steely determination to keep their
children isolated from society but this is always kept ambiguous
allowing the audience to draw their own conclusion.
Lanthimos directs the film with a controlled locked-off look. He
refrains from using exciting camera angles and as a result perfectly
captures the guarded nature of the family. It is lit in a typically
sterile manner heightening the way everything the parents do to their
children is calculated to terrifying precision. There are hints of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (1998)
in the underlying tone of the film but Lanthimos creates something more
visceral than that and evokes heart and sympathy towards the oppressed
children. Even the scenes of sex and violence have a certain innocent
charm to them.
As the father, Stergioglou makes for a sinister matriarch forcing you
to question his true motives towards his family. However, it is the
three children who are what truly connects you to the emotional pull of
the film. As the eldest, or as she later calls herself ‘Bruce’, Papoulia
finds a balance between innocence and curiosity. It is she that begins
to learn of the world outside, through some acquired videos, and her
determination to re-enact scenes from the likes of Rocky, Jaws and
Flashdance are some of the most heartwarming scenes you will see this
year. As the brother, Passalis brings an uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin
sensibility to the film. He never looks like he belongs in this world,
or any other for that matter. In many ways, a child in the body of a
man, he manages to retain ignorance even while attempting sex. The stand
out performance though goes to Tsoni as the youngest daughter. Brainwashed into thinking that licking people will result in gifts she presents an infant gaze at everything she encounters which further etches her into the heart.
All too believable and terrifying, like that monster your dad used to
tell you about if you did not finish your greens. Some will find the
lack of explanation frustrating but you only need to think back to your
childhood to appreciate sometimes parents lie to protect. Dogtooth is a film that will gnaw on your brain for weeks after viewing.