Thursday, February 3, 2011


Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

While watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, I was reminded of an American independent film from a few years ago called Ballast. When I saw Ballast in the winter of 2009, I got out of the theater with a strange feeling. I went home and penned my first film review (the reason you won’t find it here is because it is woefully inadequate as a piece of criticism and helplessly self-involved). My review went something like this: have you ever experienced a work of art and had no idea what to make of it? Later, I went on to discuss an intellectual inferiority complex that I believe I still possess. Despite that set back, in recent years Ballast has become one of my favorite films. Nowadays, I could tell you all about the gritty realism and the use of non-professional actors that recalls Italian Neorealism, as well as the sheer, unmistakable beauty of the cinematography and the heartbreak of the quiet story. But back in the winter of 2009 I was just as confused and slightly upset as I was when I finished watching Dogtooth just a few days ago. Experience, however, has taught me that this kind of feeling should be treasured.

Two names that have gotten a lot of mention in relation to Dogtooth’s elliptical, ambiguous style are European establishments Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. For anyone familiar with these two titans of cinema, this should come as little surprise. Dogtooth mines the post-horror landscape Haneke and von Trier have been exploring in films such as The White Ribbon and Antichrist. In Dogtooth, Lanthimos explores the horror of the banal. Many have made insightful assertions about the film being an ideological reflection of an anti-state attitude or the nightmarish protocol of raising children in the relative seclusion of the bourgeois. Yet, these are projections of critical thinkers. The film itself is relatively formless though it plays something like a bleak coming-of-age story. Three “children” (they are at least in their early 20s) are held within their parents compound and fed lies about the outside world. Their parents alter their linguistic universe (a “zombie” is a little yellow flower, a salt shaker is a “telephone”) and thus unhinge the children from their base of reality. When one daughter blackmails the woman who is paid to have sex with her brother, she receives two videotapes (Rocky and Jaws...make of it what you will). This act sets off a chain of irrepressible events that result in the girl attempting to escape her family home after she removes her titular Dogtooth, its loss being the symbol of freedom in the demented world of the film.

Along the way taboo moments (the boy’s sexual encounters become disturbing when his father offers him one of his virginal sisters) are balanced by darkly amusing ones. The father explains that the house cats the children see around the yard are fearsome predators who are responsible for the death of their other brother, who, it is suggested, escaped sometime before the film begins. One gets the distinct impression of a playful heart behind Lanthimos’ cryptic film. He seems to be teasing the audience. It may be that we are part of some kind of self-reflexive cinematic experiment, not unlike the social and psychological experiment the parents are performing on their children. Lanthimos is testing our tolerance and our trust.

Yet, this is not the film of an egghead auteur. The exquisite manor in which the family lives is contrasted by stark acts of violence, which punctuate seemingly innocuous yet somehow deeply troubling moments of childlike play. The parents seem intent upon protecting their children from all outside forces, including nature, yet the film’s conclusion seems to affirm what we already know to be true: certain forces can not be stopped and any attempt at repression simply augments their power. Yet, it is still significantly terrifying to realize that were it not for our insider’s perspective, this idyllic home of an upper class Greek family might be resemble an antiseptic Utopia.

There are so many smart ways to analyze Dogtooth that it can be overwhelming. Yet, the film is not meant to assault your pride or your intellect. Rather it seems meant as a dark reimagining of everyday life at its most profoundly basic. It does not transcend quality, yet that same cinematic quality is uniquely tempered by a kind of extraordinary vision of contemporary 1st world culture. The family’s rituals are so like our own it is frightening. Perhaps, that is why Dogtooth got under my skin, just as Ballast did. Though the two films are worlds apart they cut through the thick of the abstract to illuminate a kind of unification. That unity was enough to make Ebert cry after viewing Ballast. It’s enough to make me scream after Dogtooth.

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