Judge Daryl Loomis can't wait for his teeth to fall out.
Can I lick you?
Somewhere between family drama, psychological horror, and dystopian science fiction lies Dogtooth, a bizarre look at the final days of a once happy family. What made them happy, though, and what breaks it apart is strange and terribly unsettling. All this from one of the best foreign comedies I've seen in some time. Leave it to the Greeks, once again, to show me a movie I've never seen before.
Facts of the Case
In the ultimate in home schooling, a husband and wife (Christos Stergioglou, Hard Goodbyes: My Father, and Michele Valley, Singapore Sling) have confined their three children to their country estate for their entire lives. They have taught their kids lies and played psychological games with them, turning them into puppets for some totally obscure purpose. The kids, now nearly grown, seem happy, but they are completely ignorant of the world around them. Their only connection comes from Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard whom Dad has brought in to satisfy his son's mounting urges. Christina, though, is sick of being used, so starts to introduce elements of real life into the children's minds. This meddling causes everything the parents have tried to build to unravel and destroy their precious family unit.
I imagine there will be people who vehemently disagree with my assessment of Dogtooth as a comedy. Admittedly, it doesn't seem very funny at first glance; this is a cruel film packed with child abuse and weird sexual games, but the mounting absurdity starts to draw out the humor until it becomes so insane that you don't know what to do but laugh. When director Giorgos Lanthimos finally pulls the rug out from under the audience in the chilling final moments, we're left without knowing whether the joke was on us or whether there was ever one in the first place. The packaging for the Blu-ray disc features a picture of the eldest daughter, her face covered in blood, with a quote from Nicolas Rapold of the New York Times stating, "Hilarious." This is clearly deliberate; this is exactly the feeling the audience is left with after watching the film. Lanthimos juxtaposes the humorous and the perverse with an expert hand, making for a difficult and rewarding film.
I find it interesting that Michele Valley, who plays the mother here, also plays the mother in Nico Nikolaidis's 1990 classic of obscenity, Singapore Sling. Most have not seen that film, though everybody with a strong stomach should, but it is itself a kind of mother film to Dogtooth. More than just their national ties, both films meld the disturbed to the beautiful and transgression to absolute skill in ways that few other productions approach.
The story is solidly written, but extremely obscure. Lanthimos makes no attempt to explain why any of this has gone on; he just drops us into the situation on one typical morning and then we're along for a wild ride of psychological games and a lot of licking of things. Each morning, the kids wake up to a recording of vocabulary words. In their home-schooling, they learn that an sea is a leather armchair and a motorway is a very strong wind. They wander blindfolded around the grounds and pass their time by racing to see who can hold their hands under scalding water the longest. Lanthimos has built this estate as a dystopian world, but there's no indication that anything has happened off the premises to necessitate the treatment of the children. They are no doubt prisoners of their parents, but the prison is their entire world. Their total ignorance of the world around them has made their situation completely normal. To watch it from the outside, though, is anything but. Sometimes, the whys are overrated. Both the humor and the possibilities of interpretation in Dogtooth would both deeply suffer by explanation. Instead, it comes off as family comedy filtered through the minds of Margaret Atwood and Michael Haneke which, to me, is an extremely strange filter.
It would be one thing if the film was just a nutty black comedy, but Lanthimos infuses a ton of style into every aspect of the film, though, and the result, for as hard a film as it is to watch sometimes, is also a really beautiful thing. The director uses off-kilter angles and a bright white palette to give the film a near-science fiction feel, while using the frame to cut off body parts, which sometimes highlights another aspect of the image and sometimes dehumanizes the subject. In the multitude of film references and graphic sexuality, the imagery is sometimes bludgeoning. That might be my only complaint about the film, though the over the top nature of it all is much of the basis for the comedy, making it totally necessary.
The performances are a little harder to judge. Given the premise that these kids, now young adults, have never interacted with anybody else and know absolutely nothing that is actually correct, how should people act? The performances from three actors (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, and Hristos Passalis) are consistent with the overall tone of the film. That doesn't make them relatable and laughing at their plight is a cruel thing, I suppose, but they flail around acting like animals half the time and act like it's Father Knows Best the other half. I may not understand the first thing about the characters, but the performances make sense and are pretty enjoyable to watch.
The Blu-ray disc for Dogtooth is not a good as I'd have hoped, however. Kino Lorber, a label I've had a long love affair with, has always been inconsistent in their releases, whether that's on tape or disc. Dogtooth is perfectly representative of that, with a picture that often looks great, is not without its problems. In general, it's next to perfect, very bright and sharp in the gleaming whites. There are portions of the print, however, that appear damaged, something that simply should not stand for a current film. I'm not sure what caused the problem, and I'm not sure how it wasn't corrected before the release, but for a new film, it should be much better. The sound is as good as I could hope for, a quiet but extremely clean surround mix with consistent if light use of the rear channels. There are no problems here at all.
The extras are a light group, starting with three deleted scenes that provide some back story, but are ultimately unnecessary. A short interview with the director is quite good, though. He briefly goes into most aspects of the production and discusses much about the comedy aspects of the film; it is a valuable listen. A photo gallery features a few pretty shots and some behind the scenes images. The trailer rounds out the disc.
Dogtooth is not for everybody. Erotic, transgressive, and cruel are not three adjectives I generally think of to describe comedy, but here we are. This is a beautifully self-contained world that is at once gorgeous, hilarious, dark, and mean, and there are few films out there like it.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
• Deleted Scenes
Review content copyright © 2011 Daryl Loomis; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.