Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos won the Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Fim Festival with his film Dogtooth, a feature that considers the evolution of family upbringing should the parents decide to close their children off from the world at large… entirely. This is a psychologically disturbing film that takes a near-documentary approach to examining the ill-conceived parental upbringing of three children and the damage it causes.
The film centers on three nameless teenagers (seriously, their parents have not named them) whom we first meet as they hit play on a tape recorder and listen as their mother’s voice gives them their vocabulary words for the day. One such word is “sea,” which we learn is a leather armchair. Later on we’ll learn “phone” means salt shaker, “zombie” means yellow flower and “pussy” means big light. Sheltered from the outside world, these three children live with their mother and father (also nameless) whom have decided to raise their children to be frightened of what waits for them outside the high fence that surrounds their massive home, a world they’re told they’ll only be ready to explore once one of their incisors (referred to here as a “dogtooth”) falls out.
The children occupy their time playing endurance games monitored by their father. The winner receives a sticker. The only contact with the outside world the children know is Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard working for the family business who’s been brought to the house by Father (Christos Stergioglou) in order to satisfy his son’s sexual desires. However, Christina soon contaminates the sterile environment with outside influences turning what was really nothing more than a human game preserve, into a breeding ground for teenage curiosity.
Lanthimos engages the audience instantly by simply dropping us into this world rather than trying to use an outsider or voice over to guide the story. Further along he uses easy to recognize pop culture related material to give us a connection to the story, while using sex and violence to stir our emotions.
The performances are spot on, each actor owning the ridiculous nature of it all. This is most likely the reason I never found myself laughing, but instead looking on in awe of what could just as easily be a National Geographic documentary exploring alternative, yet damaging, parenting techniques. Even when Father has his family members on all fours and barking like dogs in their backyard I didn’t crack a smile, but found myself intrigued as to how the experience would effect the characters later in the story.
In terms of recent films, Dogtooth is easily comparable to both Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me as films exploring the effects parenting can have on children. Sexual and violent tendencies play a role in all three films and Dogtooth finds a particular kinship to The White Ribbon in its use of animal cruelty and physical violence.
Dogtooth can be looked at as darkly comic by some, but I think that is only out of being uncomfortable with the content of what the viewer is seeing. If you’re laughing, I suspect it’s nervously. I personally found it to be disturbingly psychological as it takes a look at just how susceptible to conditioning human beings can be and how the slightest misstep in a child’s upbringing can cause serious damage. Then again, you could also say it’s a full-blown realization of how teenage curiosity is nearly impossible to control. No matter how I looked at it, I wasn’t able to turn my attention away.