THE CAT IS THE MOST FEARED ANIMAL THERE IS!
In January 2011, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced to his cabinet that Dogtooth had just been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, going on to say that this should concern the whole country and the people. The Prime Minister’s pride in Yorgos Lanthimos’s achievement was obvious. Greece had not had that many Oscar candidates before. In the past few decades, Costa Gavras and Theo Angelopoulos did earn international accolade (the latter was admired in particular by Martin Scorsese), but the time was ripe for a younger generation.
We are introduced to a family somewhere in Greece. Dad (Christos Stergioglou) owns a factory and their home is a large compound surrounded by a high fence. He and his wife (Michelle Valley) has three children, two daughters (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni) and a son (Hristos Passalis) who are all in their late teens. As we soon realize, the fence is there for a reason. The parents have not allowed the kids to see any other people and raised them according to a set of values and principles that are unique to the family. For instance, the children have been taught that the word “sea” means a chair and that the airplanes that pass over their heads are small toys that could fall into their garden. Much of the kids’ spare time is spent inventing new games.
Sometimes, dad brings one of his factory’s female guards home and pays her to have sex with his son; obviously, this is considered normal. Late at night, when the children sleep, the parents engage in odd sexual games. The boys and the girl are told that they can leave their home once they lose a dogtooth…
Absurdist theater vignettes
On the international release of this film, the director was compared to Michael Haneke, which is expected. In at least two of the Austrian filmmaker’s movies, Funny Games (1997) and The Piano Teacher (2001), his camera has quietly and coolly observed abnormal and very off-putting behavior in social situations that may seem ordinary to the casual observer. In Lanthimos’s film there’s a well-to-do family whose very foundation is completely rotten, even though its youngest members don’t understand it. Some critics, especially in the U.S., came to think of this as an attack on homeschooling. Parents are usually the ones who know what’s best for their children, but who is there to protect them if the parents are in fact doing everything they can, perhaps due to a mental illness, to destroy their kids’ lives?
The sick behavior of everyone involved here is captured by a camera that rarely moves, which is ironic for a filmmaker who used to make commercials; the result is an often fascinating series of absurdist theater vignettes, some of it quite frank as far as the sex goes. They make us understand just how crazy the parents are, but we also begin to feel a little bit for the children (in spite of the cold attitude) and the older daughter’s burgeoning revolt that eventually leads to a devastating final scene.
Dogtooth isn’t perfect. I kept wondering why the revolt had not come sooner in the children’s lives. After all, they look like they’re 18-20 years old; they should have begun to question this existence at the age of, say, 13. That might actually have made for an even more powerful film.
Dogtooth 2009-Greece. 97 min. Color. Produced by Yorgos Tsourgiannis. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou. Cast: Christos Stergioglou (Father), Michelle Valley (Mother), Aggeliki Papoulia (Older Daughter), Mary Tsoni (Younger Daughter), Hristos Passalis (Son), Anna Kalaitzidou.
Trivia: Original title: Kynodontas.
Last word: “I thought that it was not necessary, that it would make a completely different film if we knew [the parents’] reasons. Then it would be a film that was a lot about that, and less about the results the situation has on the children, on their minds and their bodies. What I was more interested in was exactly that: how much you can influence a person’s mind, how much you can direct a person when you can control him from a very young age. You can literally change the perspective he has about the world. It’s very scary and huge, if you think about that. So I was interested in that, and not about why they did it.” (Lanthimos, A.V. Club)