SXSW 2010: DOGTOOTH (Kynodontas) review
[With Greek festival hit Dogtooth screening at SXSW we now re-post our review of the film that ran at the film's appearance in Rotterdam.]
Giorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth certainly doesn't lack for ambition. A father, pathologically opposed to the moral decadence of modern society, deceives his three children into living as voluntary prisoners in their isolated country home through an ongoing programme of lies and misinformation. It's a audacious premise that suggests any number of interesting narrative possibilities and carries an eerie relevance in the era of Josef Fritzl et al.
Yet the director presents his film like some surrealist, detached passion play, with blunt, direct symbolism, characters who remain broadly sketched from beginning to end, bizarre tonal shifts handled with little foreshadowing or apparent forethought and a refusal to anchor much of the proceedings in any kind of recognisable contemporary setting. Dogtooth manages intermittent flashes of genius; it jolts, unsettles and compels the viewer but the lasting impression the director's approach leaves is one of frustration, where the movie seems to raise an endless series of questions that never get properly answered.
Lanthimos begins by demonstrating the father (Christos Stergioglou) has tried to account for practically everything, bringing in Christina, a female security guard where he works, to see to his son's sexual impulses. What he and his wife can't plan for, they cover up on the fly; the first arc of the film establishes the family's routine as a series of blackly comic misunderstandings, where the children accidentally hear of something to do with the outside world and the parents have to twist and distort its meaning.
It's both chilling and frequently hugely entertaining, for all these are basically fairly simple gags. The children are convinced a model airliner and the jet passing overhead are basically the same thing. A new dog will arrive in their household through the mother 'giving birth' to it. A cat is a terrifying predator from the outside world that's sure to consume them if they leave the boundaries of the garden, and so on.
The conflict comes into the narrative when Christina, unfulfilled by the son's sexual performance, decides to bribe one of the two daughters into pleasuring her in exchange for trinkets brought in from over the walls - which proves to be the catalyst which sees things slowly begin to fall apart. Obviously many stories revolve around setting up a hermetically sealed world of some kind, then methodically pulling it to pieces. The problem with Dogtooth is the film never really feels entirely certain of how to go about this.
It's fairly apparent right from the start this is a dark story at heart - Stergioglou's patriarch is basically abusing innocents' trust in him, whatever his intentions - but the narrative never seems to manage either a smooth transition into madness or a convincing series of shock reveals. The plot points are obvious well in advance, and the tonal shifts anything but, so given how violently the mood swings back and forth the viewer can end up feeling they're being coerced into belly-laughs at incest, rape and fairly brutal emotional violence.
At times Dogtooth is certainly very funny - comedy entails laughing at someone else's misfortune, and so on - but given the father is so obviously a monster maintaining the comedy well into the third act feels less like creditable moral ambiguity and more like a simple error in judgement.
Not only that, the obvious ties to the real world despite all the surreality mean the film ends up setting its standards impossibly high. When did the parents make the decision to live like this? When did they start brainwashing their children? How is it none of the three ever challenged the status quo before now? If they did, why is it never referred to? Why has no-one ever grown suspicious of the father over the years? These things are either glossed over or ignored entirely, and the list of possible questions goes on for much longer.
Dogtooth is a daring experiment that will more than likely be of interest to anyone after a bold, inventive piece of contemporary cinema. It's capably acted by a cast who sell both the comedy and the otherworldly horror of the premise very well (at least, taken scene by scene), and it's crisply, attractively lensed and shot. But it's simply not half the film it ought to have been, and the film it evidently could have been given the obvious talent involved.
Poorly scripted, much too objective, lacking in the exposition its own script seems to demand, Giorgos Lanthimos' third film comes maddeningly close to greatness, but ultimately cannot clear the bar it's set itself. Some audiences will undoubtedly take it very much to heart, but on the whole it's difficult to give it anything more than a very cautious recommendation.