Monday, March 21, 2011

Giorgos Lanthimos | Dogtooth

by Douglas Messerli

Giorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou (writers), Giorgos Lanthimos (director) Dogtooth / 2009, USA 2010

The Greek film Dogtooth begins with a confounding if somewhat comedic episode wherein the three children of the house, a son, older daughter and younger daughter, turn on a tape recorder which tells them of the four words they must learn that day: Sea, Motorway, Excursion and Carbine. "The sea is a leather armchair with wooden arms." "A motorway is a very strong wind." "An excursion is a very resistant material." "A carbine is a beautiful white bird."

No, we are not entering a work by Gertrude Stein, but have entered instead a beautiful home with manicured lawns, in which, we soon learn, these nearly grown children have long been incarcerated. They have never been permitted to leave the property, and their lessons, home-taught my their parents, help to prevent them to comprehend anything of the outside world. Only the father (Christos Stergioglou), owner of a nearby factory leaves the house, the mother staying home to tend her children, occasionally telephoning her husband in a locked room, wherein the children believe she is talking to herself.

Along with their strange lessons, come other bizarre tales which the children have been taught, namely that they have a brother who lives immediately outside the wall that surrounds the house, doomed to world behind their "paradise" clearly because of some infraction. Later, when the elder brother discovers a cat on their property, he is so terrified that he stabs the cat to death with a pair of pruning shears, the father using the opportunity to return in a blood stained shirt, telling them that their brother has been mauled to death by a horrible cat. The three are made to get down on their knees near the car gate, barking like dogs.

Equally bizarre, the children are taught that the passing planes overhead are toys, and discover toy versions of planes planted throughout the property, with which, like much younger children, they joyfully play.

If this all seems to be a story of a simple alternative universe, a kind of Kafka-like reality, we soon discover the terrible implications of their isolation. Alone, the children play games of "endurance," testing which of them can keep her hands under hot water or how long they can remain under water in the swimming pool. When the brother temporarily borrows his sister's toy airplane, she cuts his arm with a kitchen knife.

To deal with their son's growing sexuality, the father brings home, blindfolded for each leg of a trip, a security guard from his plant. Christina, the only character in this work with a name, complaisantly agrees—presumably she is paid and, in any event, it would be difficult to say no to her boss—but she is soon bored with the boy's straightforward and uninvolving sexual activities, and, when he refuses to participate in oral sex, calls him a "zombie." Always ready to explain all things away, the mother (Michele Valley) answers the boy's question about the word's definition: "A zombie is a small yellow flower."

Offering the elder daughter a headband she is wearing, Christina involves the girl in cunnilingus, introducing the girl into lesbian sex.

On a second visit, Christina offers the younger sister some hair gel for the same pleasure, but when the girl refuses, she is forced to give up two film tapes instead. The tapes, obviously of Rocky and Jaws, effect the girl immensely, as she plays out scenes from the movies in family life. Discovering the tapes, the father beats her with the plastic tape boxes and later hits Christina over the head with a video player.

Perceiving the error of their bringing a stranger into the house, the father shifts gears, allowing the brother is allowed to pick one of the sisters as a sexual companion, introducing the family into incest as well.

The obvious comparisons between this family and the activities and the Austrian father Josef Fritzi, who for years kept one of his own daughters in hiding in their own home, fathering several children with her, is made even clearer as he see the parents' threats against their offspring. Desperate to bring home the dog he has given over to train from a "friend" to an "animal" who will guard their house and the secrets within, the father tells his children that his wife will soon bear two children and a dog, although the children may be foregone if they behave.

The children have been told that they may leave the house only when they shed their canine teeth. Uncomfortable with the sexual activities with her brother, the elder daughter acts a out a scene from Rocky in response before smashing her face to remove the tooth, hoping to escape by positioning herself in the trunk of their car.

The last scene of this horrifying film, says it all. We see the father drive to the factory, leaving the car. But the trunk does not open; the girl does not escape. Whether she has already died or will she be long entrapped within before her death we cannot tell. For it is there the story ends, while the appalling consequences of this failed utopia remain with us long after.

Dogtooth was the winner of the Cannes Festival's award "Un certain regard," and was nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for a foreign film.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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