Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dogtooth [Kynodontas]

Dogtooth is a fable about a Greek family steered by a grievously misguided - yet, we must admit, loving - patriarch into a clandestine system of games and rules that will inevitably break down in a terrifying manner.

There are two girls and a boy, all fully grown, living with their mother and father on a not-quite-luxurious estate with a finely-groomed lawn and in-ground pool surrounded by fifteen-foot walls and bushes to keep the family in and the outside world out. Nobody is allowed to leave except the father, who holds a desk job at a factory and brings home supplies. These rules are so ingrained that when given the opportunity, the boy will stop at an open gate, touching an invisible boundary with his toes.

The two parents coach the children to fear and misunderstand the world they've never seen and have only heard about. They teach them intentional malapropisms (asked to "pass the telephone" at the dinner table, the mother hands over the salt) and when an airplane flies overhead, they toss a small toy plane in the yard and tell the kids that it fell. A cat is a monstrous animal that will tear you apart with its jaws and talons; the kids are taught to bark on all fours in case one ever shows up.

No one has any names, either. The three children are simply the boy, the older girl and the younger girl. He, she and she.

Framed by the varying perspectives of all five family members, writer-director Giorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Fillipou stir up a remarkable mixture of unmitigated terror and sympathetic innocence. Comparisons to Michael Haneke's exercises in suspense are apt - from pretty much the first frame to the last there is a palpable dread, punctuated (not perforated) by shocking instances of violence. From the increasingly bizarre and supremely abusive games the children are forced to act out to the insidious leak of catalysts from the world outside their fence, Dogtooth is a gripping, provocative ticking clock. It's also the first movie in ages that's actually made me, for one brief moment, involuntarily bring a hand up to block my eyesight because I couldn't bear to watch what was unfolding.

It gets to the point where, as terrible as their lives are, you find yourself almost (almost) rooting for the father's experiments to continue successfully just so the twenty-something-year-old children can be kept safe. This, then, leads you to consider that very primal definition of "safety", which maybe (maybe) results in the kind of twisted logic that led the father and mother to develop their scheme in the first place. If you never let your children leave the house, you never have to worry about them talking to (or having sex with or learning from) anyone you don't want them to. But almost anything can be a weapon of dissent in the right circumstance.

There's room for an allegorical interpretation, but I can't presume to come up with the correct one and it's unnecessary besides. Dogtooth is effective even as a story about something as simple as a father trying to maintain control of his family and watching as an exponential increase in entropy destroys his carefully constructed system and wrests his kin from his hands.

These kids, of course, were lost long ago, as soon as the mother and father began their experiments. There will be no saving anybody here; what could be described as a 'Sopranos ending' is merely a tacit acknowledgment that if any of these characters tries to save themselves or each other, it will only make things worse. It's pretty damn bleak, and it's gonna stick with you.

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