Reviewer: Steve Dollar
Rating (out of 5): *****
Today's news that Dogtooth (perfectly timed with the DVD release) has been nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign film category is stunning. While it's gratifying to know that one of 2010's most outré critical favorites somehow slipped into what typically is the mushiest of Oscar competitions, it's even more fun to imagine the reactions of more middlebrow Academy voters to this perverse family drama. I expect a whole lot of “what...the...?” reactions.
The second feature from Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos is set in a studiously blank ex-urban home where three children - actually, fully grown college-age adults - spend their days competing in absurd challenges like: Who can inhale ether and not pass out the longest? For their dedication and achievement, the kids are rewarded with colorful stickers they can apply to the headboards of their beds. The family patriarch (Christos Stergioglou) has kept them sequestered in a walled-in compound since birth, apparently, cut off from the insidious effects of pop culture. Instead, the siblings - two girls and a boy - are given language lessons by their mother (Michele Valley) in which words are redefined. A “zombie” is a little yellow flower, for instance, and a “pussy” is a big light. Common housecats are lethal, demonic predators. And so brainwashed are the kids, that when they find a toy airplane planted in the yard, they believe it is the real one they heard passing overhead a moment earlier.
Suggestive perhaps of a closed state like North Korea or, gee, America under a future Sarah Palin takeover, the world of Dogtooth is perhaps the weirdest sitcom since Eraserhead. Its basic set-up is that of the sketch comedy, in which a series of discrete bits play through to a punchline, aided by the magically deadpan performances of, especially, Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni as the sisters, and the perfectly banal mise-en-scene (which uncannily suggests the blasé voyeurism of Larry Sultan's San Fernando Valley studies, and the mundane poetry of William Eggleston, who was a trash humper before trash humping was cool). At least the first time through, a viewer is so focused on processing the strangeness and tuning in the movie's screwy groove that a lot can go unnoticed.
But funny ha-ha becomes funny uh-oh when a nonplussed tollbooth attendant Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) - the only character with a name! - is hired by Dad to have mechanical sex with the son (Christos Passalis, groomed like a Ken doll). The antiseptic love bouts don't do much for her, and soon Christina is wooing the older sister. A pair of VHS tapes are exchanged for oral sex, and soon … well, let's just say the Italian Stallion undoes 20-something years of home schooling in a few well-timed punches. Fake Hollywood Boxing > Skinner Boxing.
In fact, rather than further explication, I need only refer you to the “Dogtooth Dance Meme Medley.” (It is but one among many YouTube tributes). That a cinematic moment can manage to be so delightful and disturbing at the same time testifies to Lanthimos's nuanced touch with tone. The incestuous haze that hovers over the film, punctured by sudden outbursts of brutality, seeps under your skin even when you're laughing, and the mind instinctively grasps at backstory. Is the mother really, perhaps, brain-damaged? It's a metaphor, right? But for what? The film pretty much plays any way you want it. Three viewings in, all fortuitously on big screens, I still have no idea. And I had no luck prying any insights out of Lathimos when I interviewed him last spring. He's too smart to pin it down.
But my appreciation for the story's meticulous construction continues to grow. Even if Dogtooth doesn't win an Oscar, I sure hope we get to see that “Dance Meme” scene on national TV.
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