By Kim Voynar

Dogtooth Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth, the searing tale of suburban satire, familial horror, and political subversion that won the Un Certain Regard category at this years Cannes Film Festival, puts an extraordinary spin on the idea of twisted families. Iit’s brilliant in equal parts because the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, immerses us so completely in the crazy world he’s created and in part because the entire cast gives themselves so fully to their parts that we can’t help but believe them.

It’s impossible to truly describe this film — really, you need to see if for yourself to fully appreciate it its delicous madness — but the setup, in brief, involves a mother (Michelle Valley) and father (Christos Stergioglou) who completely control their three teenage children, who they keep like lab mice in a carefully sterile and isolated country estate.

To be fair, the mother in the tale is as controlled as the children, in her own way, but she’s still complicit in the abuse and manipulation of her offspring. The three siblings — one boy, two girls — are all in adolesence, and at least part of the message of the film seems to be that the introduction of sexuality and a window into normalcy infused into the siblings’ world via Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) a young woman paid by the father to come to the house — blindfolded —  to sexually service the son is, ultimately, the family’s downfall. A message about the evil of women, with Christina as the temptress Eve, perhaps?

You know the news stories you sometimes hear about a crazy father who imprisons his children in a basement refuge for 20 years and no one is ever the wiser, and you wonder to yourself, “How is it possible that this went on and no one knew?” Dogtooth is a play on that idea, at least on the surface,  but at the same time you have to ask yourself just what ideas the director is really attacking here — and I expect that if you asked ten different critics who were at today’s press screening that question, you’d be likely to get ten different answers.

My take on it is that it’s in part a social criticism of “hover-parents” who are overly protective of their children to the point of harming them, called out by the extreme measures the matriarch and patriarch of this particular twisted clan take to control what their children know and how they think and act.

From teaching them the wrong words for common things (asked what a “pussy” is, the mother calmly replies that it’s a bright light, as in “when the pussy was turned off, the room was plunged into darkness,” whereas a “zombie” is a small yellow flower and a “phone” a shaker of salt) to drilling the children daily in endurance games such as who can hold their breath under water the longest, the parents control every aspect of the children’s lives, rewarding them with stickers and punishing them brutally for their failings.

While this is certainly “hover-parenting” taken to an extreme way beyond frantically cleaning a child’s hands with antibacterial wash every time he touches dirt, or teaching a child to call his penis something innocuous like “birdie” rather than what it is, I think the film critiques controlling parents as it more broadly critiques society. It’s perhaps worth noting that the children are never referred to by name; they are only the son (Hristos Passalis), the elder daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) and the younger daughter (Mary Tsoni), thus depriving them even of the individual identity of names to call their own.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but sense a political undercurrent to the film as well; there are certainly aspects of the film that allude to extreme xenophobia (albeit mixed in with a very unhealthy does of pure insanity) in the way in which the father is obsessed with controlling every aspect of his children’s environment and his belief that, in doing so, he’s actually molding them into better people. Once the elements of sex and the outside world have infected the house and, in particular, the elder daughter  like some sort of out-of-control virus, the horror starts to spiral out of control.

By the time you’re about a third of the way into this film, there’s nothing the director could throw at you with the behavior of this crazy family that could shock or surprise you, though you might find yourself, as I did, cringing and muttering, “Oh no, he’s not gonna go there …” more than once.

Dogtooth is relentlessly stomach-churning, horrific, shockingly funny and subversive all at the same time, and more than that, it’s a remarkably original piece of filmmaking with some astonishing direction, both in terms of the acting (raw, honest and utterly superb) and how particular shots are framed and set up (when you see the film for yourself, see if you can spot the exact moment in the film when the camera actually moves for the first time … it’s this kind of attention to detail that sets a film like this apart).

There was also a lot of thought put into the set-up, particularly in moments like the way the parents deal with manipulating even pieces of the outside world they can’t control, like cats wandering onto the family compound and airplanes flying overhead.

I have to think this film was probably shot on a very low budget, but it’s exactly the kind of film that proves the point that you don’t need a big Hollywood budget to make a smart, compelling and completely original work. This is the kind of film I love to see at a festival … if only they were all this good.

-by Kim Voynar

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