Barren Greek Landscapes: Dogtooth (2009)

Nestled in a barren Greek landscape is a contemporary, claustraphobic, purpose-built utopian complex. A family of five live there, and the three children (who seem to be in their late teens or even twenties) don’t know of the existence of life outside the walls. Inside the high fences, the three siblings listen to a tape. This tape is the first red flag into the unconventional lifestyle of the inmates. Amongst other words, the tape teaches them that the word ‘sea’ actually means ‘chair’. The low level, insidious disquiet of Dogtooth is aroused, and there is no one there to help them.

Composed in such a wholly photographic manner by director Yorgos Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatatakis, the aesthetic nature of the film is reminiscent of the slightly clinical look of a David Cronenberg body horror. And yet scenes are often shot in abstracts. A conversation in which we can only see the sisters legs. This certainly keeps you from being allowed to immerse yourself in the exclusive world of these odd, psychologically damaged characters.

The infantilisation of the three older children is by far the most disturbing part of Dogtooth. Sensorily they are deprived, often being blindfolded and played with. Like soldiers they are a taught of a regime of strict obedience, at the risk of being violently reprimanded by their patriarch Father. They play with, and fight over toy planes. The brother jumps into his parents bed late at night. The two sisters are physically developed but completely deprived and naïve to any sexuality they may have, whilst the brother has his self-serving sexuality forced upon him much to the frustrated chagrin of his assigned ‘escort’, (and the catalyst for the films domestic imbalance) Cristina. These are characters who, like young children, don’t understand the concept of intimacy and so touch each other inappropriately and do so often. The sexualisation of the film is undoubtedly one of the most difficult things to process as an outsider.

Somehow inside the disturbing shell of Dogtooth a lot of darkly comic moments can be found. One memorable act observes the children being enlightened to the evils of the cat species, and so to ward away any potential feline attack they are taught to get on all fours and bark at the boundaries of the complex. Even mother joins in, as father acts as Sergeant Major and barks as they bark back. Played comedically, this scene may have just been ridiculous. But as it is, it’s played completely straight by this superb cast and as such, the ridiculous transcends into surreality, into something visually slapstick but conceptually troubling. Much of the quiet success of Dogtooth works this way, constantly subverting the psychological exploitation with tongue-in-cheek guffaws, and purposely stilted dialogue clearly showing the lack of social development inherent in the family.

Dogtooth is perhaps A Clockwork Orange for a modern, European age; with its dark agenda in playing God, searching to study the manipulation of the vulnerable humanity of our young. Despite being nominated for a prestigious Academy Award, Dogtooth may not be the muse of the casual film fan. Maybe I’m wrong, but it perhaps straddles the line between popular and acquired tastes, plainly choosing to be driven by long pauses and quiet, concluding on the most melancholy and unresolved of endings. It has a real, clear voice. And personally, I found it an inspiring and hypnotic start on a future journey of Greek cinema.

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