Review of Dogtooth (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009):

Dogtooth starts with stilted acting, stubborn camerawork and a frustratingly pondering pace. I wouldn’t usually call this a good start – and the alarm bells of ‘arthouse wank’ were chiming ‘ding dong’ in my head – but somehow, and with the most magnificent precision, filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t put a foot wrong in terms of taking what I’d usually consider a negative and turning it into a tight mood package that is every bit as engaging on a visual level as it is in terms of story.

A Greek couple keeps their teenage children captive in a walled family compound. Never having seen anything beyond their garden, the nameless progeny speak in a vocabulary crafted by the parents in which ‘zombies’ are yellow flowers, a ‘pussy’ is a keyboard and so forth. They spout ‘facts’ from approved medical textbooks and video tutorials, and believe airplanes flying overhead are the size of toys occasionally falling from the sky into their backyard to be collected as trophies. All seems (kind of) OK in this sedated utopia until the father introduces an outsider into the household as a sexual vessel for their son. Trouble.

Everything is so considered in Dogtooth, there’s hardly a superfluous word, action or moment, as it leads to an ultimate conclusion in which you can see each element slotting together like a hundred-piece puzzle – even the choice of the title ‘Dogtooth’ could not have been more appropriate. But this is not the greatest achievement of the film: The fact that director Lanthimos creates something so compelling that is equally as hilarious as it is horrifying is a sight to behold; a tenuous balancing act that could have toppled clumsily to one side, but – no, no – he walks that emotional tightrope like Philippe Petit. On the second viewing, I added the father character to my ‘scariest villains of the silver screen’ list – a cinematic Josef Fritzl.

We don’t know why these tyrannical adults have treated their offspring in such a manner. We don’t know how they came to orchestrate this world, and we don’t know anything about their upbringing, background, motivation, etc, etc. Maybe that’s why the father is so scary – we know so little about him, except that he’s a tightly wound ball of control that threatens to uncoil at any second, along the lines of Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan in Sexy Beast. Given a commercial Hollywood makeover, I’m positive the parent’s unexplained back-story would become central to the plot, which makes it even more interesting to note the recent Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Dogtooth is anything but commercial or Oscar-friendly. Such a nomination has almost restored my faith in the Academy.

There were times while watching Dogtooth that I wanted to leap from my chair and adjust the awkward framing that continuously cut off heads. I also felt the itch to push forward the action, or lack thereof – particularly during the unsexy sex scenes only rivalled in unsexiness by those of Pablo Larrain’s exceedingly uncomfortable Tony Manero. But, when it comes down to it, I wouldn’t change a thing about this delicious Greek cinematic souvlaki. It’s entertaining, it’s challenging, it’s got a sensational dance sequence and it’s even got fantastic original poster art (check it out on IMDB).

Woof, woof (good dog).

Dogtooth releases on DVD (Madman Entertainment, Australia), 16th February 2011

 

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