Former Cinematical chief, close personal friend, and actual superhero James Rocchi said this when I asked him what I should see at Toronto this year: "Dude," (pause for dramatic effect; his, not mine) "You must see a Greek film called Dogtooth. It won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes, it's unlike anything you've seen before, and it's amazingly twisted and weird." That was all I needed to hear. Well, that, and that the running time was 96 minutes. That's important when you're at a busy festival like Toronto.
So enthused was Sir Rocchi that he joined Kim Voynar and me for his second screening of Dogtooth -- on the very first day of the festival! (That's not something most film critics could (or would) do.) But I'm pleased to note that Mr. Rocchi's enthusiasm was well-founded and accurate: quite simply, I've never seen a film (anything at all) like Yorgros Lanthimos' Dogtooth. The premise will sound like that of a horror film, but it isn't. Except maybe it kinda is. (Hmm.) The film focuses on a family of five: mom, dad, and three kids. Only, um, the daughters seem to be about 17 and 25, and the son is the middle child. But they're treated like seven-year-olds, and they behave in kind. It soon becomes clear that Mom and Dad are all sorts of quietly insane, and they play all sorts of bizarre tricks on the kids.
For one, the "kids" have clearly never stepped foot off of the family's property. Their entire universe consists of a living room, a bedroom, a spacious back yard, and a grungy swimming pool. Second, the parents (for some reason) are intent on teaching their offspring "convoluted vocabulary." In other words, Son, Younger Daughter, and Older Daughter (as they are always called on-screen) believe that "lamp" means "a white bird," and that "keyboard" is another word for the female sex organ. And it gets even weirder than that...
Mom keeps a supply of toy planes nearby, so that when her kids see a jet flying overhead, she can trick them into thinking the machine has crashed into the garden. The kids wander around playing arcane games with water faucets and drinking straws. Dad brings a dour security guard home from his vague workplace so that Son can enjoy some sort of sex life -- and this is where the trouble seems to begin...
"Christine," the security guard, is the only exposure the kids ever get to the world outside, and her presence kick-starts a ripple effect that (gradually) throws this twisted family into serious confusion. It's the arrival of sex, of course, into this sterile and silly world that causes the first cracks in the foundation, but once "Christine" trades some videotapes for some oral sex with Older Daughter, that's the beginning of the end.
But what does all this strangeness mean? What points are the filmmakers trying to make? I extracted a few compelling ones, and I suspect that a different set of eyes would pull out of a few more. On one level, Dogtooth feels like a strange but pungent slap in the face to suburbia, to middle-class complacency, and to the often aggressive ways in which parents foist their own beliefs onto their children. Taken another way, the film feels like an inverted version of a typical Hollywood comedy: In most farces, we're offered a normal setting that is invaded by something strange or absurd, whereas Dogtooth goes the other way: Here we're introduced to a patently surreal situation, and it's darkly amusing to see what happens when flat normalcy infects outrageous absurdity.
By this point you've correctly surmised that Dogtooth is not for all tastes, and I can confirm that suspicion by saying that the film is occasionally unpleasant, intermittently gory, and laden with sexual situations that are frank, odd, and uncomfortable. But it's this sort of unpredictable oddness that makes the film such a provocative experience. Suffice to say that we won't be seeing an American remake of this one any time soon.