‘Dogtooth’ – a film whose title becomes horribly apparent as it progresses – begins with a woman teaching her three children some new words. The first indication that something is just a little bit wrong is the kids’ ages: they’re all in their mid to late teens. The second is the definitions of the words she’s teaching them. “Sea” apparently has nothing to do with the ocean; it’s a type of chair. “Telephone” is a salt shaker. And if, like me, you thought “zombie” was a shuffling undead creature, well we were both wrong. It’s a “small yellow flower”.
Later, as the kids soak up the sun outside, a plane passes overhead. Their mother throws a small toy plane from an upstairs window. The kids race to find it, there being some kind of competition attached to the retrieval of what they earnestly believe are objects that fall from the sky.
By this point, even the hardiest aficionado of such cinematic surrealists as David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky or Luis Buñuel would have to admit that there’s definitely something not quite right with this particular family.
It soon becomes apparent that they’re not allowed outside the property. A fictional prodigal sibling who suffers on the other side of the wall is presented as a cautionary tale. When it suits their control-freak entrepreneur father, he “kills off” their sibling, blaming the death on a cat. It gives him a good excuse to train them to hold the perimeter on all fours, barking like dogs.
What this blandly manipulative individual can’t control, however, is the onset of hormones, and he resorts to paying one of his female staff to take care of his son’s sexual needs. He takes all possible precautions, including driving the woman to and from the residence blindfolded. Nonetheless, she brings external influences into the family’s otherwise hermetically sealed environment. The businessman dispenses with her services and decides – SPOILER ALERT (and, uh, SOCIALLY DEVIANT BEHAVIOUR ALERT, as well) – to offer his son the choice of his two sisters.
Oh, did I mention that ‘Dogtooth’ is a comedy?
A comedy, granted, in the way that Herzog’s ‘Stroszek’ is a comedy. Or Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’. Perception, “normality” and accepted norms – not just social and/or moral, but the norms of how we expect a movie to function – are skewered to the point of absurdism. Whether one laughs, howls or runs screaming from the cinema is entirely a matter of personal response.
What makes ‘Dogtooth’ so simultaneously funny and horrifying is that writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos never gives us a why. The film is a metaphor, no doubt about it – but for what?
Again, it’s a matter of personal response. It works as an exposition on Phillip Larkin’s observation that “they fuck you up, your mum and dad”; certainly, it presents an effective warning on how parental overprotectiveness can distort and damage the worldview of their offspring. Or you could take it beyond that and consider it a response to Josef Fritzl case – the film becomes far more disturbing with this reading in mind. Or there’s the wider metaphorical implication: the film as a treatise on how governments cultivate a climate of fear and misinformation the better to control the citizenry.
‘Dogtooth’ is one of the most enigmatic things I’ve seen recently. The performances are amazing, the cinematography off-kilter, and the entire aesthetic a testament that Yorgos Lanthimos is indisputably a truly original talent.