Saturday, May 22, 2010

Review - Dogtooth (Kynodontas)

When I first saw Dogtooth, I saw it under the most perfect conditions. I knew little about the film beyond the basic premise, and having been prompted to catch its London Film Festival screening by a friend who had seen it in Cannes, I settled down to watch Giorgos Lanthimos' intriguing unknown quantity. What I saw floored me, with Lanthimos unleashing a shockingly brilliant and completely original piece of work that confounds every expectation. It's a difficult film to review though, as I'm wary of spoiling too many of the surprises that make this picture such a constant delight. I recently watched Dogtooth for a second time and had a lot of fun observing the reaction the unsuspecting audience had to some of its most startling sequences. In the case of this film, ignorance is bliss.

Ignorance is also the state the young characters at the centre of Dogtooth find themselves in. Ever since the day they were born, the children of this unnamed Greek family have been trapped within a fiction created by their parents. The father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michele Valley) have instilled in their offspring an overwhelming fear of the outside world, and the three young adults - two females (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) and one male (Hristos Passalis) – have never travelled beyond the boundaries of their garden. The children are repeatedly told that they will only be ready to leave "When the dogtooth comes out" and in the meantime, only the paterfamilias is allowed to come and go. He drives off to work in his car every day and returns with the family groceries, having meticulously removed all of the labels from the tins first. Not a single hint of the world at large is allowed to penetrate this hermetically sealed environment. The lengths that the parents will go to in order to maintain their fantasy is remarkable; aeroplanes flying overhead prompt the mother to toss toy replicas into the garden – they are 'rewards' for the children's good behaviour – and a domestic cat who wanders into the garden is instantly identified as a potential threat.

Likewise, the parents have created an alternative language to compensate for any foreign words their offspring may have picked up. So, 'Motorway' means 'a very strong wind,' 'Zombie' means 'small yellow flower' and 'Pussy' is translated as 'big light' (leading to the great line, "The pussy was switched off and the room was plunged into darkness"). This attention to small details and the complete conviction of the cast allows Lanthimos to make us believe in his bizarre scenario, although the leap of faith required is perhaps not so great following the real-life Josef Fritzl case. The performances are mannered but authentic, with each of the young actors playing the children displaying their stunted educational development through a weirdly robotic demeanour and occasional primal emotional outbursts. Stergioglou is also outstanding as the father who will do anything to maintain complete control over his brood, including reacting with shocking violence to any destabilising forces.

The question Lanthimos never answers in Dogtooth is the one most viewers will be asking: Why? We never learn the parents' motivation for keeping their children confined under such circumstances. There is the suggestion that another brother escaped and is now living on the outside – the children sometimes throw food over the fence to him – but did he even exist, or is he simply another fictitious creation, whose fate is used as a tool to further frighten the youngsters that remain? What is not in doubt is Lanthimos' utter control of his material. He sustains a brilliant, darkly comic tone throughout, finding surreal humour and disturbing undertones in every situation. The film is stunningly shot by Thimios Bakatatakis, whose imaginative framing gives every scene a slightly off-kilter edge.

Lanthimos keeps the ultimate meaning of Dogtooth hidden from view, and ensures the film is ambiguous enough to work on whatever level we want it to work on. The film is effective as a black comedy or horror, as a parable of obsessive parenting or as a satire on state and media control achieved through an atmosphere of terror. He also keeps the conclusion of the film tantalisingly out of view. We have already seen that the parents' plot may finally be unravelling – with Christine (Anna Kalaitzidou), hired to satisfy the son's sexual needs, the catalyst for this change – but we are left to speculate on how this mesmerising story will end. Lanthimos closes on a shot heavy with meaning and wide open to interpretation, and he holds the shot for the perfect length before finally cutting away. As I watched Dogtooth, I knew I was watching something special, but it was when I saw this final shot that I knew I was watching a masterpiece.