Saturday, 26 February 2011
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis
By Alan Bacchus
The opening scene is especially confusing, three siblings in a bathroom playing some kind of cryptic game, an endurance test to see who can hold their fingers under the hot water tap the longest before pulling away. It’s not so much the task at hand which is odd, it’s the language used. It’s in Greek, though the words they refer to just match up. Sea' becomes a 'chair', 'motorway' means 'strong wind' and 'carbine' means 'a white bird'? Just typos by the subtitler? Nope, this is just one part of the extraordinary and audacious subversion at play in Giorgos Lanthimos’ sick and twisted art house black comedy.
This film original premiered in Cannes 2009, winning the Prix En Certain Regard, but has seen public release in US or Canada until now, when it received an Oscar nomination of Best Foreign Language Film. If anyone doubted the Academy willingness to go dark and edgy and risky, they just need to watch Dogtooth.
This film perhaps sets new benchmarks for torture and brainwashing. None of the characters have names but it appears the five main characters in this film are a family, living in some kind of enclosed compound. Father (Christos Stergioglou) is leader, and the only one allowed to leave the compound, mother (Michele Valley) is allowed to make phonecalls and seems privy to what’s going on, but is still clueless. The three children, identified as son (Hristos Passalis) , eldest (Aggeliki Papoulia) and youngest (Mary Tsoni), live like captive slaves unaware of the social existence outside of what Father has fed them since birth – a wholly deranged experiment is domestication commanded by Father presumably over the course of 20+ years.
A staid and dead pan tone is established by the director early. We see long almost silent takes of the characters looking, reacting, observing without editorial manipulation. The awkward camera angles and wide angle lenses enhance the twisted nature of this domestic story.
Lanthimos’ objective, non judgemental point of view means we’re left to our own to infer what exactly is going in. After the first scene, wherein characters seem to be talking in a jumbled up version of their language, we slow figure out what’s going on. A cruel experiment by the father to shape or mould his children into a mutated social beings. Early on we see Father go to a dog kennel to check on the progress of his dogs who are being trained as attack dogs. At this point most of us will clue in to the metaphor. But the purpose of this bizarre game remains clouded in mystery.
Lanthimos moves quietly from scenes of surreal black comedy to shocking violence and depravity, with a consistent undercurrent of monumental existential tragedy and despair for these children. A life wasted on the deranged whims of a madman, and yet they are completely unaware of their plight.
The sexual development of the children is carefully handled. A young woman from the outside is pimped out by Father for the gratification of his son’s urges. The sex, of course, is immoral and cruel for the son, but it never feels like pure exploitation. On the other hand Father has also trained his family when in danger to go down on their hands and knees and bark like dogs.
As audacious and beguiling the concept, there’s a repititiousness which sets in. Like some of the great cinematic enfant terribles, Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier Lanthimos pushes our buttons, pushing the audiences willingness to be in the point of view of pure madness, without a traditional dramatic arc to suspend our disbelief. In the back of my mind I was prepared for the film to cut to black and at any moment, leaving us shocked and wanting – the same effect I had at the end of The White Ribbon. Lanthimos is not quite as cruel as Haneke and he engineers a semblance of a third act, a glimmer of hope for the children to escape their prison.
Whether or not this film wins the Oscar is inconsequetial as the recoginition it will receive when announced as a nominee by some Hollywood celebrity on Sunday night will be monumentous. The film will thus attract an audience of curiosity-seekers, many of whom will experience something they’ve never seen before.