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Dogtooth (2010,Greece)

18/06/2011

Director: Girogos Lanthimos        Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia

People are strange creatures. The reality of human existence is that we as a species inflict outlandish cruelties on one another with reckless abandon and for the strangest and often most obscure of reasons. Take for example the notorious case of Josef Fritzl, arrested in 2008 for the imprisonment and systematic rape and abuse of his daughter (and her children, fathered by him) that had spanned the preceeding twenty four years. It’s a story that shocked the world, more so as it was not a completely isolated case of this kind of behaviour. It clearly made an impact on the mind of Girogos Lanthimos as it seems blatantly obvious that it was an influence on the plot of Dogtooth.

In the film, three children (although really young adults) are kept isolated in the family home by their parents, sheltered from an outside world that they are told is a hostile and deadly place where they would surely come to harm. All outside influences have been removed from their lives and their education and entertainment is provided solely by their parents. The equilibrium of this system is unbalanced however when their father brings a young lady, Christina, into the house in order to satisfy the sexual urges of the son. With this outsider come tidbits of life outside their compound and slowly but surely the carefully constructed environment begins to collapse.

It’s a peculiar film with a peculiar tone. There’s a definite sense of humour at play, albeit a dark one and often times the elaborate tales the mother and father spin to maintain the status quo border on the hilarious. In an effort to insulate their children from any outside interference they teach them a corrupted vocabulary replacing the meanings of certain words with something innocuous and safe. Motorway for example is redefined as a strong wind rather than a road that would lead to somewhere, knowledge of which would create a curiosity that would threaten their lifestyle. This humour hides something far more sinister though. While the arrangements are sold to the children on the basis of it being for their protection it soon becomes apparent that there is some darker psychological motive, at least on the part of their controlling and frankly psychopathic father. Is their isolation for their own benefit or is it a tool of control imposed by a bully? Judging by some of the punishments doled out by father to his children the latter becomes increasingly apparent.

It’s a gently paced film, the day to day life of the family unfolding at a casual pace becoming increasingly punctuated by more frantic moments as the cracks begin to show. Between the contraband provided by Christine, an increasing sexual tension between the siblings and a growing sense of curiosity about what lies beyond the fence their discipline begins to crumble, manifesting itself in violent, emotional outbursts which in turn instigate more punishments.

As the film is entirely about the people and their relationship to one another and their limited environment everything rides on the actors. Christos Stergioglou is quite frightening as the taciturn, controlling father, especially as his true colours begin to show through more and more. Aggeliki Papoulia plays the eldest daughter, brilliantly conveying her dismay at the reality she has been brought up to believe being systematically confounded little by little. As the main instigator of rebellion within the group she suffers the most, her mental state rapidly deteriorating as she begins to question the facts as they have been presented to her.

Between the quiet feel of the film and the realistic portrayal of the family the moments when things turn nasty really hit you. While no animals would have been harmed for real during the making of the film it is worth pointing out that if you have issues with animal cruelty there are scenes in the film which you will find upsetting. Just like the violence perpetrated against the people in the film, these incidents are brutally realistic and point towards the fractured state of mind of the children who really know no better due to their lack of socialisation and the lies they have been fed.

All in all it is an interesting exploration of people and what drives them to be so cruel to one another. It infers a lot of things, establishing what is happening and then letting you come to your own conclusions as to why. It never patronises or feels the need for lengthy and excessive exposition preferring instead to let events speak for themselves. I like it when filmmakers credit their audience with some intelligence and insight. It’s also an intriguing examination of how you might go about completely isolating people from the world outside and what lengths you would have to go to in order to protect the artificial reality that you had imposed. All compelling, gritty stuff. My only complaint (and it’s a minor one) is that the open ended conclusion is just a little bit too open ended but then it’s not really about the ending as much as the things that lead up to that point and that journey is definitely one worth taking.

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