dir: Giorgos Lanthimos
[img_assist|nid=1340|title=The family that's depraved together stays together mostly because of the high wall around the property|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=298]
Oh, what a fucked up family, and, oh, what a fucked up film.
I haven’t had much cause or recourse to review Greek films thus far, in fact it’s never come up. In a decade or so of reviewing (and twenty years of chin-stroking viewing), there’s never been an instance where I’ve watched a Greek flick in a local arthouse cinema, because I can’t recall the last time one got to play. Sure, you can occasionally watch flicks about Mongolian yak herders, or Massai tribesmen, or Inuit fishermen fishing for fish through tiny ice holes, and every single French flick no matter how vacuous or silly, gets arthouse play, but practically nothing from Greece.
I have no idea if the European Union’s poor orphan cousin has that much of a film industry, to be honest. Can’t imagine there’s that much spare cash lying around. Still, arguably the most famous (internationally) director from Greece, called Costa Gavras, who’s a pretentious pill but an accomplished director if I’ve heard or seen one, doesn’t even direct flicks in Greek, preferring the international language of arrogance, being French.
So it’s something of an occasion for a Greek flick to get arthouse play, and critical talk as well. I guess winning something at Cannes can do that for your flick’s promotional chances. This flick has made, inexplicably, a tonne of reviewers’ best of end of year lists, and I have no freaking idea why. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting film, if you’ll permit the double negative, which is the written grammatical equivalent of farting loudly during a funeral.
It is, however, a deeply unpleasant film. For reasons we never become privy to, a deranged father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michelle Valley) have constructed an enclave for themselves and their three kids. The parents have, since the children’s births, brought them up within an elaborate scenario depicting why the family can never venture outside. On given mornings, the children, who are pretty much adults, have to listen to audio tapes with ‘words of the day’ for them to learn, all of which are perversely wrong. They are taught that the word ‘the sea’, actually means ‘couch’, or that ‘zombie’ means ‘little yellow flowers’, or that ‘vagina’ is a ‘bright light’. Think of that during your darkest hours.
At one point the daughter asks her mother to pass the telephone, which ends up being the salt shaker. Their children are completely cut off from the outside world, completely and utterly, with no television, radio or tubes of the internets and no perspective with which to realise that their living arrangements are deeply and utterly fucked up. To put it mildly, these ‘children’ who have grown up privileged but isolated, and who have been lied to their entire lives by psychotic parents, have also grown up to be monsters. The tight regulation under which they’re kept, with fantastical fears inculcated to keep them incurious and pliable, and the intense competitiveness used to keep them fighting each other instead of questioning their parent’s authority, can only really result in them doing some truly fucked up things.
Everyone generally speaks in these flat, affectless ways. The ‘children’, especially, mimic the flat tones and hurried speech of actual children or the mentally impaired. I thought it was just the family itself, but one of the few people from the outside world who’s allowed to enter their domain, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), speaks in ways just as flat and seems just as strange.
Her main earner is from working as a security guard at the plant the father works at or owns, but he occasionally brings her, blindfolded, to the family estate so that she can fuck the son, for which she is handsomely paid. This part-time prostitution means she is the only other person the monstrous brats have ever seen, and so the daughters almost treat her like she’s their dearest friend, for which they have no points of reference. When one sister (Angeliki Papoulia) sits next to Christina, the other sister (Mary Tsoni) lisps, “Mother, may I sit next to Christina as well?”
Despite being well-paid, Christina clearly derives no pleasure from her extra-curricular work, and so seeks some kind of release from anyone at hand. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that these ‘kids’ know nothing about sex, including what the son (Christos Passalis) does with the prostitute, which is on a par with the other perverse games the kids play, such as knocking themselves out with ether and seeing who wakes up first as the winner, or putting their hands into hot water and seeing who chickens out first. When the inevitable ‘lick this and I’ll give you a trinket’ situation ensues, of course it’s all going to go wrong.
The most dangerous element Christina brings into their sterile world is fragments of the outside world itself, in the form of video tapes. In haggling over the potential reward for the giving of cunnilingus, two tapes come into the older daughter’s possession, which somehow reveal a world stranger than the one they already think they know about. Only to kids this isolated, and so damaged by the behavioural Psych 101 perpetrated upon, could a tape of Rocky, Jaws and, I suspect, Flashdance, do such damage.
If you think I underplay how damaged these kids are (beyond the entirely fucked up animal killing and incest and such), they believe, akin perhaps to Amazonian Stone Age in current times tribesmen, that the airplanes they see overhead are tiny toys that occasionally drop to Earth (which their parents, on rare occasions, throw out of a window onto the lawn, to give them sweet incentives). They fight tooth and nail over these cheap toys, and over stickers, which have a magical, totemic importance. They’re worth a lot of points.
This kind of scenario isn’t new, at all, and of course the average filmgoer watching something like this would be reminded of elements from The Truman Show and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, and the violence out of nowhere and sheer cruel perversity just oozes Michael Haneke all over the place without being too obvious. But it certainly exists ‘of a piece’ - on its own as well, eschewing or ignoring the other references you could identify or that could be made. It really comes from a far more fundamental place.
Where it really seems to come from is the awful amount of power even normal parents have over their own children, at least initially, when they’re giving them the tools with which they are meant to understand the world. Those tools initially are as simple as the words with which they are meant to grasp and refer to the world around them, which over time become as complex as the structures that underpin the world, and the generally expected standards of human behaviour. Even well-intentioned and ‘decent’ parents lie to their children, for a whole host of reasons, as disparate as deciding that a certain piece of information is too complicated or potentially too disturbing for a child to be exposed to as yet, to wanting to avoid the embarrassment certain conversations provoke purely for selfish reasons.
But what if you take that desire to protect your children from the awful things that can happen to the world, and try to ensure that they grow up into innocent beings, and end up warping them so badly they’re unlikely to be able to continue living with you or living outside in the real world? Well, then you have Dogtooth.
The emphasis on videotapes, both as instruments of the fall of innocence, and as weapons of retribution, can’t be a coincidence. It just can’t be. I also can’t ignore the oddness of the three flicks the daughter watches being flicks from so long ago, which she quotes with ecstatic recall, as if she’s quoting some kind of demented scripture (as if there’s any other kind). It almost seems as if the flick is making the counterargument to those kinds of tedious wowser parents who lament the state of Hollywood and have done so since its creation, forming groups trying to coerce or boycott movies specifically or in general. The father’s worst fears are that his children could be exposed to the outside world through videotape, and when he takes revenge on a character, it’s with the actual video player that he wields. But in protecting them, he exposes them to his own insanity, and pushes them towards far, far worse.
I’ve heard tell, when this flick was doing the film festival circuit, that this was perceived as something of a dark comedy. I guess there are bits that could almost provoke a smile. But mostly I found this flick so perverse, so bleak, and so ugly that whatever humour could have arisen out of any scene was totally swamped by feelings of discomfort. I felt horrible for these characters, and because of them.
Not only that, but there are plenty of deliberately unpleasant scenes relating to either sexuality or naked hairy man arse (or worse). The acting and such might have been spot on (I really haven’t seen enough Greek films to know, although this flick won everything including acting awards at whatever penny ante homegrown cinema awards the country has the temerity to hold), but I guess I’ll never know, because I really need to take my brain out of my skull in order to wash it now, thanks very much, dirty, dirty film.
I guess there’s something quite amazing about the flick, which is that the Good Intentions Paving Company results in the worst outcomes, and that monsters beget monsters without DNA being the reason, but that didn’t make it any easier a flick to sit through. As such, it’s probably too out there for most people, including me. The scene where the end culmination of the parent’s bullshit mythologising results in DIY bloody dental work, exists as the best illustration of just hard to watch the flick is, though the thematic elements behind it are still quite strong.
7 times if you’re wondering why it’s called Dogtooth, then you need to remember that when your adult canine teeth (it doesn’t matter if it’s left or right) finally pop out of your mouth, that’s when you’re old enough to go into the Real World out of 10
“We’ll tell them I’m having twins.”
- “Two boys?”
“A boy and a girl.”
- “ All right, boy and a girl. And a dog.” – the Manson Family looks saner than this family – Dogtooth.