Dogtooth” shows the kind of stark, nightmarish images that assail the senses during a fretful summer nap, when the body soaks the sheets and you’re disoriented for a while afterward. What just happened here? It’s not easy to say, except that the long procession of bizarre scenes evoke the distinct sensation of being badly pinched or stung. “Dogtooth” doesn’t do anything as forthright as knock you out, but it definitely leaves a lasting mark.
When it came out overseas in 2009, “Dogtooth” got mixed reviews — as befitting its title, critics in Europe and the U.S. approached it with the guarded wariness one affords a strange and dangerous dog. Directed by Greece’s Giorgos Lanthimos, it’s tempting to think that the film offers a window into the psyche of that country, unfettered by the collapsed-economy subtext. But that would be wrong, and very, very rude.
Aristotle described man as a social animal, but “Dogtooth” goes the opposite route and then some, by drawing the effects of isolation. We’re never told why the story’s central figure, a pasty, paunchy patriarch (Christos Stergioglou), is convinced the outside world will only damage his family, but convinced he is. He has created a planet more remote and inaccessible than Mars, inhabited by himself, his wife and their three children, in a house surrounded by a high stone wall. There’s a TV, used solely to air home videos that depict only themselves and no other living creature.
No names are given, and there’s very little dialogue. But the mom (Michele Valley) has taught different meanings for certain words to her three offspring: “Sea” is the big leather armchair in the living room; “pussy” is a big light. This despite the fact that the Son (Hristos Passalis) is 20 years old and his two sisters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) are in their late teens.
No one is allowed to leave the house except the father, who manages a factory and comes home every evening with dreary regularity. When the whole family is assembled in the living room, he orders Mom and the kids to get down on all fours and bark like dogs. He also tells them that once their canine teeth come in, they’ll be allowed to go and see the man-eating cats roaming outside the gates. Huh?
The film is rife with such moments, and you end up despising everyone: the kids for their compliance and utter joylessness, the mom for her passive submission, and the dad who in his past life was surely a deranged guard at Auschwitz.
The kids never think to argue with their father. On the grounds is a swimming pool and a suspiciously tended lawn with deck chairs, but any activity resembling normalcy has been banned long ago.
One day the dad brings home a female security guard from the factory, whom he has paid to satisfy the sexual urges of the son. Obediently the pair engage, but judging from the level of enthusiasm they may as well be mixing cement.
Besides, this guard turns out to be more interested in trading sexual favors with the sisters, and she gives them a handful of cheap jewelry in exchange for licks. The girls are quickly enamored and decide it doesn’t matter where they lick, or whose limbs are involved. Elbows, legs, ears and a lot of other places are explored meticulously.
“Dogtooth” recalls other movies of children suffering at the hands of monstrously dictatorial parents, most notably Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999). But while the five daughters in that movie struggled to give as much as they got (and staged a lethal rebellion), Lanthimos’ kids are weirdly inert and ineffectual.
The camera remains static throughout, but then so do the characters, and they’re probably the most graceless group of people in movie history. The girls are pale and awkward, while their brother acts as though his limbs are weighted by bags of sand and every drop of blood has been drained from his system. You just want to shake him by the shoulders and kick him out the front door.
As strange and unpleasant as “Dogtooth” is, I found myself almost wishing for a sequel that goes like this: It’s three years later, and Greece’s economy is totally on the rocks. The dad has lost his job, and the family has dug up the lawn to plant vegetables. The girls have discarded their awful retro dresses to wear jeans and T-shirts. Maybe there’s a baby or two on the premises, and there’s a dictionary on the living-room shelf so they can look up the meaning to “sea.” Such imaginings help, otherwise “Dogtooth” could be the roughest hour and a half of this summer.