Sunday, 3 April 2016

Dogtooth (2009)


Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Cast: Christos Stergioglou (as father); Michelle Valley (as mother); Angeliki Papoulia (as older daughter); Mary Tsoni (as younger daughter); Christos Passalis (as son); Anna Kalaitzidou as Christina

Synopsis: An older married couple (Stergioglou and Valley) keep their adult children - two sisters (Papoulia and Tsoni) and a son (Passalis) - in complete isolation completely cut off from the world outside. Having only lived in their world within the home and garden, the children are taught that only their father can leave by car into the dangerous outside environment beyond the gates, are provided a vocabulary each day to learn where a "phone" is a salt shaker and a "zombie" is a small, yellow flower, and that they have another brother living over the fence they cannot reach. The parents' decision to bring in a female security guard from his workplace (Kalaitzidou) to provide sexual favours for their son proves to be their undoing, bringing a corrupting influence on the older daughter.

Alongside his collaborators behind the camera (co-screenwriters and production team) and in front of it (the actors perfectly in tune to depicting the material sincerely), Yorgos Lanthimos is exceptionally talented in creating a very idiosyncratic oddness in the films I've seen, a style that can be compared to the original surrealists in France. He at least learnt the most vital rule of them, that rather than weirdness for weirdness' sake as that which fails most modern films, as can be witnesses in a work like Vernon Chatman's Final Flesh (2009), a film like Dogtooth can make a discussion about something as average as a spangled headband, and the truth in whether one could glow in the dark, become like an alien language heard in a dream. The ordinary is enough to create an odd mood in the viewer as something similar to what they see in their everyday life can become uncanny when viewed in a skewered lens.  The family depicted within this film - who have no names baring their status within the family - are like any within Europe, who deal with simple things as pick up groceries that they've ran out of and the children having to be told off for hitting each other, but the nature of how their relationships have been built are troubling.

The humour is exceptionally dark, willing to tackle a great deal of taboos within its simple premise. It evokes the case depicting in Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple (1998), a real life incident where parents kept their two young girls locked up in their home away from the outside world, causing them to develop their own worlds and communication as a result. In vast contrast however to that film's sympathetic views of the parents, Dogtooth presents normalcy of this idea within a more unsettled tone and with the further issue that the children are clearly adults. Dogtooth's strangest quality is that it managed to be nominated for the 2010 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Picture; going between depicting incest to including hardcore sex, both in a tape the parents watch after a night of intimacy and (possibly real) acts from the cast, this is very dark movie even with its humour. The innocuous nature of the family's life, almost entirely set within the home environment baring the father's workplace, offsets some of the more eyebrow raising material - videotape to the head, assault of a cat with garden shears - but as much causing other sequences to crawl under the skin further, usually by inducing shocked laughter from a viewer as it would induce revulsion and disgust. The tightrope between humour and shock is a precarious trick the film manages to pull off in the end and its fits the material more to do this, the act of adding humour causing the horror of the material to stand out more within the concept of how absurd it is. The world of the family and its structure furthers this, where punishment for bad behaviour is to be forced to keep strong mouthwash within one's mouth until the mother tells that person they can spit it out. Prizes for following their parents' strict rules and instructions - chores to lessons such as being able to last longer underwater in the pool - are the sort one gives little children such as stickers and eventually toy aeroplanes, the real life ones that cannot be ignored flying above their house adapted into their world as the toys themselves.

A blatant satire of a patriarchal family - openly making reference to the training of a dog the family have as symbolic of this, going further where the father has everyone including the mother walk on all fours and bark to protect the home from threats like viscous domesticated cats - it avoids becoming redundant in this concept by depicting both the family as grounded and ordinary as possible and by filtering this all through the humour. There is something far and away more unsettling about the family through how clinical they are rather than the tone of the film being as completely sedate as its presentation is - the structure of the movie allowing the absurdity of them to shine through whilst the family itself, with its obsession with health and medical products, comes uncomfortable close to some form of perverse inward strength of the family guiding them by not letting the outside world corrupt them. Unlike Michael Haneke, while sharing visual aesthetics with him, I don't feel like I being forced fed heavy handed concepts because the humour provided makes the material more provocative. The mirrored traits of classic surrealism also make it more potent in themes, pieces of normalcy becoming mysterious objects or acts within a new light. A phone is kept hidden in the parents' bedroom, the mother locking herself in there when she need to phone the father, turning it into a secret treasure for the children and emphasised by it being a dial-up phone on a cord, causing it to have an archaic nature to it to add to the mystery. In their world, it's perfectly natural that the mother could give birth to twins and a dog for the children, warning she will give birth the twins if the daughters don't behave better. The use of language as well is perfectly in synch to surrealist writing, where the unexpected sexual enthusiasm of licking a "keyboard" has the perverted touch of it whilst the changing of words for others evokes, for myself anyway, René Magritte's famous written words "This is not a pipe". Lanthimos' knack, with co-writers, for intentionally stiff dialogue full of normal conversational pieces being strangely emphasised is another gift to the film, one which survived the transition to English for The Lobster (2015) mainly because, unlike another non-English director who may falter, it was intentionally awkward and mannered in any language. It even manages, in an inspired twist, to absorb pop culture into an important plot point, the viewing of Jaws (1975) and Rocky (1976) being the corrupting influence on the older sister, drastically altering her language and creating a new vocabulary of her own as a result onwards.

Technical Quality:
The style of Dogtooth - sedate, minimal camera movement - is one I'm not particularly fond of in most cases. It became common in a lot of the world art films I watched made in the 2000s and grew more when the "Slow Cinema" movement developed later in that decade in the films I than saw. Unless it's pure bad luck to see a lot of the more staler examples of this aesthetic style - single, still shots; modest editing which doesn't bring attention to itself; naturalistic and even muted colour palettes - this style has unfortunately cleansed away a lot of the unique, idiosyncratic voices you'd find in world cinema decades before, more so especially as digital camera have become more common. There are of course exceptions when the style is used well, and Yorgos Lanthimos uses it as his own trademark, the stillness alongside a muted colour palette adding to the mundanely of this family's own private world. He also uses it, with the use of cuts to the next image within the same scene, to both create a greater shock from some images but also, in the prolonged deadpan nature of some moments, a bigger punch line for the humour.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
It was an absolute guarantee that this would be added to the list, placed entirely within a world (both of Lanthimos' and the central family) that is familiar to the viewer with recognisable interactions and objects but completely alien at the same time. The other factor is that, while there is a narrative trajectory, it's a slight one completely open ended where it's the character interactions themselves and the minor details in their lives that become more important; perversely the same kind of material one can find in social realist drama but found here within intentionally abstract dialogue and behaviour. This didn't lose its teeth when it came to The Lobster either, becoming as strange with known actors as it does with the commendable cast here.

Within a narrative where the only possible escape for the children is when their juvenile dogteeth fall out, allowing them to enter the outside world as adults in a perverted form of reaching adulthood, it's as much the performances in this case that are as important for the abstract tone to work. Angeliki Papoulia particularly as the older sister stands out, as the one who becomes more rebellious and independent as the film progresses - stabbing her brother in the hand for having a toy aeroplane and later in a memorable moment dancing wildly at the parent's wedding university in a spasm against their will - but everyone has to make the world credible even if its humorous. It's funny, to emphasis to his children that the outside world is fraught with killer animals to keep them within the home, that to get a toy plane from beyond the gate the father has to get into the car and drive a few inches, pick the toy up, and then drive back into the home environment, but to make this work with some credibility the muted performances are done seriously rather than acted out as silly. The grimness of the material alongside its humour is enforced by this, adding to the weirdness of the piece, more so when the outsider Christina decides to take advantage of the children for her own desires, adding a macabre nature to the material where there is no definite good or bad person in the narrative, only individuals who act both like the viewer but also strangely. Again, when you get to Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster acting the same way, the strangest of the material they had is reflected both in them rather than unknowns in the roles but also the style Lanthimos has created over the films. This also adds to the transgressive nature of the material as, acting like children in adult bodies, aspects of the trio of children's' behaviour in terms of violence and sexuality become much more provocative, from the brother's almost slow witted naivety to the younger sister's instinctive curiosity; it's not that far removed from the aforementioned film The Apple, which dealt with girls in the Middle East who were less than ten years old, un-matured for children their age kept from adapting to an outside world beyond their door, transported here by the younger casts' memorable performances exactly by with more uncomfortable consequences as a result of their ages and the things they feel as stunted adults.

Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Surreal/Weird
Abstract Themes: Real Sex; Sexual Kink; Language Manipulation; Adults as Children; Violence Against Animals; Unexpected References To Pop Culture; Oppressive Suburban Environments; Incest; Restricted and Closed-In Environments

Personal Opinion:
Between this and The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos is revealing himself already to be a completely unique individual, one who could always prove to be interesting in the films he makes over the next few years. Lanthimos stands out more so out of directors I look to with interest, and could join as a personal favourite, because while it can be toe-curling and transgressive he is deliberately humorous in his work, not merely able to spice films with dark humour like a Lars von Trier would but clearly making a comedy here with Dogtooth as he is a satire. I tend to neglect comedy, not because I am a lifeless cynic but because comedy springs usually in a twisted way from some of the directors I already like; again, Lanthimos is pretty bleak with the humour in a film like Dogtooth but he's clearly entrenched in comedy as a genre more than with other directors even if some may be appalled by the jokes he is telling.

He also emphasises that Greek cinema, in what I've seen, is a place unexpected in its willingness to deal with un-naturalistic tones and styles to depict real issues in their society. For a country that has dealt with a military dictatorship and economic collapse amongst many other things, their cinema which gets acclaimed is provocative and/or willing to use anything from magic realism to pastiche to make a point. The late Theo Angelopoulos had little qualms with his dramas touching upon dream sequences or very strange imagery, whilst the late Nikos Nikolaidis was willing to be controversial in the couple of films I've managed to see of his, his Singapore Sling (1990) as blood brother of Dogtooth but one that decided to go for the same tonal interests by way of a perverse film noir parody. Lanthimos is one of a few directors within the recent decade, films I still need to see, who've desired to break from any form of modesty and politeness in the films they are making and, considering the history and social background I don't have that a person from Greece would, it would be just as interesting to see what Greeks think of these films and how a film like Dogtooth would hit them. Would it be a strange movie or would it hit harder for someone who spoke the same language?

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