This no-frills film-festival favorite from Greece is a single-family scenario. Like last year’s excellent Belgian film Home, with which it shares a certain dark comedy (but not the earlier film’s reluctant optimism), it features a wife and children who exist largely apart from the larger world into which the male breadwinner ventures on a daily basis. But where that separation in Home was generally a question of geography, in Dogtooth it’s a matter of patriarchy.
The father here has forbidden his kids from venturing outside the walls of the family spread, warning them of imaginary dangers like killer cats and god knows what else. Ostensibly he aims to protect their innocence from the ineluctably corrosive influence of the outside world, but in practice he comes across as a blinkered control freak whose controlling tactics — such as giving his offspring language lessons in a nonsense tongue that substitutes unrelated words for one another at random — are barely removed from outright sadism.
Dogtooth is focused on the miseries of these children like an elementary-school child with a magnifying glass who’s found an anthill on the playground. The first third of the film feels a little like a deliberately artificial exercise in miserablism, but the film slips into a queasy (and somewhat explicit) groove as some long cultural tendrils from the outside world contaminate house and home, and as the gawky girls and boy begin a too-insular exploration of their stunted sexualities.
I haven’t kept up with Greek cinema over the years, but I can’t imagine these roles were easy for the director to cast or the actors to pull off, given not just the emotional demands of the script but the, let’s say, frank nature of some scenes. The uncomfortable, unconventional performances are very much of an awkward piece with the film’s deadpan style of cinematography.
Director Giorgos Lanthimos may be influenced by Michael Haneke’s clinical approach as well as by David Lynch’s affection for the weird — some of the scenes dealing with sex have a skin-crawling impassivity, but the emotional tension is leavened by looser set-pieces like an oddly comic living-room dance performance with acoustic guitar. Eventually, the film’s ironic distance is closed up, and the minimalist approach blossoms into something horrible. Different viewers may imagine the wind here blowing in different directions – I like to read it as an indictment of a certain home-schooling mentality, but I wouldn’t be surprised if others detected larger geopolitical implications. Whatever you imagine its true subject to be, Dogtooth is immensely disturbing – so singleminded an exposé of a reactionary, protectionist mindset that it’s frightening.