REVIEW: Perverse Dogtooth Wins With Sickness and Slickness
I know of a 100-year-old woman who still thought of her 69-year-old son as her "boy"; when she died last year he mourned the loss of his status as somebody's child. Such feelings endure naturally enough: Most of us are born into a familial or relational structure that shapes -- along with just about everything else -- how we identify ourselves. The trick is in the balance -- the difference, say, between "You'll always be my little boy" and "You'll always be my little boy." Some parents struggle to keep absolute power from corrupting their best intentions, as Cyrus's creepily co-dependent mother and son pointed out, to comic effect. The limning of those boundaries is often played for laughs; the alternative is very dark indeed. Swap those laughs for a kind of mordant horror and you get Dogtooth, a brightly lit nightmare of patriarchy run amok.
A Greek tragedy with a post-modern chill, Dogtooth pushes the idea of controlling parents and extended adolescence to unsettling extremes. The second feature of writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos, the film opens with a shot of three twentysomething siblings propped up in a sparkling white bathroom and listening blankly to a bizarre language tape. "A carbine is a beautiful white bird," the voice on the tape says, and the faces of the siblings flicker with assent. They are two girls (Aggeliki Papoulia plays the elder daughter, Mary Tsoni the younger) and a boy (Hristos Passalis) who appear to be trapped in some kind of reprogramming facility. They interact as children would, concocting games of competitive endurance, strength and skill to relieve their boredom, and their nuclear dinner table is headed by an attentive mom (Michelle Valley) and dad (Christos Sterioglou) who believe it's their prerogative to teach their children that a salt shaker is a telephone.
Lanthimos lets the situation reveal itself in increments, though the bleaching light, body-bisecting angles, and deliberately framed and blocked long shots anticipate much of the weirdness to come. The only outsider allowed into the well-fenced family compound is a security guard named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), whom the father brings home from his job as a manager at some sort of factory. Christina is paid to have clinical sex with the son, ostensibly to address his urges and keep him "healthy." A morbid focus on the body preoccupies the parents, and hence the children, who are constantly giving each other fake medical exams, and checking in about their sleep, exercise, and eating habits. The effect is a cross between an Augusten Burroughs memoir and a Kubrick film -- sick and slick in equal measures.
It is Christina's infiltration that upsets the parents' plan to keep their children at home until their "dogteeth" fall out (i.e. forever). As if infected by the patrician anarchy within the compound's walls -- though the grounds provide a lush, idyllic contrast to the only vision we get of the outside world, the bleak factory -- Christina begins bribing the elder daughter for sexual favors, first with a headband, then with a couple of videotapes. Though they seem passive and incurious, the children are prone to violent outbursts. The parents keep them in line with outrageous lies, most memorably the faked death of their phantom brother (he was killed by "the most dangerous animal there is," a housecat) and the mother's ensuing threat to give birth to two kids and a dog if the existing offspring don't shape up.
Dogtooth manages to subvert its own subversions without self-congratulation: The eventual graphic depiction of incest plays as a natural extension of the family's unnatural closeness; when the son asks his mother what a "pussy" is at the dinner table, her response is the same as that of any parent trying to protect an innocent child -- "Where did you hear that word?" Somehow the amusing definition she provides plays down the strangeness of insisting that a motorway is a very strong wind. When the elder daughter begins speaking exclusively in Rocky dialogue and dancing for her life, Flashdance-style, during an after-dinner recital, we realize the security breach is a fatal one, and she's not long for that house. Implicit in her awakening is the film's darkest jest -- the idea that the only thing more profoundly influential than a pair of megalomaniacal parents is the siren call of a pop-culture classic.