Dogtooth (2009)

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Language: Greek (English Subtitles)

“The animal that threatens us is a “cat”. The most dangerous animal there is. It eats meat, children’s flesh in particular. After lacerating its victim with its claws, it devours them with sharp teeth. The face and whole body of the victim” 

Father

Dogtooth is given the dubious honour of being my first film for this blog, and I am pleasantly apprehensive about it. The scene selection menu features, among other things, some thin and interesting people barking on all fours. “It’s very weird” my Mum says, as she prepares to go out and watch a film about monumental landscape art at the local independent cinema where you can’t eat popcorn, “and not always in a good way”.

I pick it for a number of reasons. One, not to be underestimated, is that we own it. I am tired and a little grumpy when I get round to starting it thus turning any potentially fruitful Netflix trawl for something new and interesting into a half-hearted scroll that will inevitably lead me to hover over Oldboy (2003. Dir: Park Chan-wook. Coming soon, probably) but feel a bit unsure and so ease myself in by just watching three episodes of Archer. That would have been fun, in its way, but not conducive to this effort as a whole. So I pull an uncharacteristically decisive move and pick something we actually own on DVD. The second is, honestly, that it is European. I always have time for films in other languages, because of course I do, but I watch Dogtooth two days after Britain voted to leave the EU. Somewhere in my brain, I need to start this venture with something new (to me at least), exciting, and European. Because fuck Brexit. Does that make sense as any kind of ‘statement’? Possibly not. I honestly don’t give a hobbling fuck. 

Anyway, that’s how Dogtooth gets picked and it is incredibly strange and utterly brilliant. For a start, it is stunningly shot. The stills included (courtesy of FilmGrab – link in footer) give an example of the cold beauty of the interior palette, the shocking and vaguely sensuously vibrant green of the garden, the stunning scarlet of blood. It’s a good way of thinking about the action too. There is something oddly ‘straight’ about the way Dogtooth presents itself to you. Something that reminds me of those cool, sharply defined interiors. What is happening on screen is just there, in front of you. In some ways, it feels – although does not look – like watching CCTV camera footage of these people in their house. It is, although bizarre in story line, unobtrusively presented. Against this, the splashes of violence, humour and sexuality break in like bright colours. When they burst upon the progression of events (because I’m not sure to what extent I would call what Dogtooth has a “plot”) they force you to acknowledge how strange what you see before you is. It’s beautifully done and incredibly unsettling.

Mind you, given that the premise of the film is that the father of these three children has kept them locked inside the house and garden for their entire lives by an elaborate web of lies about the outside world, unsettling is exactly what it should be.

It made me laugh too. And it made me hurt.

What really fucked with me, though, was how Dogtooth intervened in my own ability to interpret and ‘use’ what I was seeing to understand. Let me try and explain. In the opening scene, as the three children of this insane couple sit in their bathroom, the voiceover details some definitions of words (“sea” etc), but the definitions are wrong. It’s kind of funny, in that moment, because it is the first thing you have seen and you haven’t yet grasped just what is at stake in the mis-definition of the word sea. Later on, when you’re a little more in the world of the film, a similar thing happens. One of the daughters asks to be passed the telephone. Only it is not the telephone, it is the salt shaker.  In the world of Dogtooth, a word you understand doesn’t mean you know what is being said.  An action may not mean what you expect. An incredible sense of tension has been created with nothing more than these examples of the gap between language or symbol and meaning. In that gap, anything can happen. You cannot predict what might come next, making every single action the prelude to … well to anything. Every gesture becomes potentially violent. Or funny. Or sexual. Nothing can be safely defined. You have been thrown off kilter. Dogtooth has disturbed your ability to read the verbal and physical languages of the people on your screen and left you rudderless and floundering inside the strangeness of it. It’s this that stays with me, after the film is over, the tension taking a long time to uncoil from my stomach.

Dogtooth, then, is a masterpiece: darkly comic, deeply bizarre, and gut-wrenching. I loved it. 

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