25 December 2010

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2010: THE INTENSE DEPRAVATIONS OF THE GREEKS

Deprived of context, the first scene of Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth, winner of Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, makes pretty much no damn sense and it is nevertheless somehow discomfiting and unnerving - and as matter of fact, context doesn't end up mattering very much, for although we learn a whole lot more about the "whats" of the film, we never really learn the "whys", though there are some educated guesses we could make; and throughout, the film remains discomfiting and unnerving, to such a degree that the words seem laughably insufficient. There's not a better way to put it, frankly, than "fucked up", and if you noticed during the film's modest release that a lot of people compared it to the work of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, you can probably guess just how fucked up Dogtooth is: the cheeky cruelty of Haneke placed within the cosmic absurdity of a David Lynch picture, is about the formula I'd use, though any attempt to diagram Dogtooth so schematically collapses in the face of Lanthimos's rather singular (and how!) vision.

Anyway, I was speaking of that opening scene, in which three young people listen to a woman's voice on tape, giving them a vocabulary lesson that makes the odd claim that "sea" is a word describing a particular kind of chair. The listeners consist of a boy around 20 (Hristos Passalis), a slightly younger girl (Aggeliki Papoulia), and a girl slightly younger still (Mary Tsoni): we'll learn shortly that they're siblings, though we never learn their names, and it seems much too plausible that the don't even have names beyond "the boy", "the elder one" and "the younger one". After their lesson is over, looking for something fun to do, they invent a game: all of them stick their finger in a basin of scalding hot water, and the last to pull out wins. Which, for my money, is where the film decisively moves from "odd" to "my flesh won't stop being crawly".

It eventually all comes out that these siblings live in a large isolated house in the country with their parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley), who have done quite a phenomenally great job of keeping their children safe from the depravations of the world; so safe that the youths have never in fact been beyond the fence surrounding their large yard, and have at best a deformed idea of the world outside (and at worst? Well, now we know why that tape, recorded by their mother, informs them that "sea" is a type of chair). The charades played out by the parents to keep their children in the dark - the invention of a naughty older brother who went beyond the fence and now perpetually suffers, the notion that airplanes are toy-sized objects that sometimes fall in the backyard - are at once goofy and terrifying; the film is the pitchest-black comedy in a long time, but a comedy it nonetheless is.

Though, in fairness, it's pretty gosh-darned hard to laugh at much of the rancidity on display, since the film begins shortly after the father has hired his co-worker, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to visit the family every now and then and sexually service his son (one feels that the parents view adolescence as an irritating necessity, akin to getting the car's oil changed every 3000 miles), and she proves to be a destabilising element in the family's incredibly delicate arrangement: specifically once she barters with the elder sister to receive oral sex in exchange for a cheap headband. From here on, things get increasingly, well, fucked-up: not to give anything away, but man-eating cats and incest are notable only for being largely unexceptional in the scheme of things.

Dogtooth is not, however, shocking for the sake of it; the extremes the film dabbles in serve what turns out to be the nastiest satire released to U.S. theaters in 2010 (and, as I sit and think of it... the only satire? Or at least the only one worth a damn). The sketchy, impossible characters - for one thing the movie never does nor attempt to is ground them in psychological realism of any sort, not even hinting at the specific reasons that any of this perversity exists - are the vehicles of an exceedingly farcical exploration of contemporary Western attitudes towards security and in-group thinking: there are at least three distinct levels on which this satire operates. First and most obviously, as a broadside against overprotective parents whose desire to keep their children safe leaves their children unable to function in the world; second, and perhaps most importantly, an attack on parents who view it as their duty and right to teach their children what to think - religious fundamentalists leap to mind, but the film makes no distinctions and could just as easily apply to any political or social belief that overbearing parents force upon their offspring - third and most broadly, as a metaphorical statement about anyone who'd rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the real world does not exist.

No matter what flavor of satire you like best, they all end up the same way: with the parents (two of the most loathsome characters of the year, especially the father, who isn't just a control freak but a wildly sexist patriarchalist) descending into increasingly disturbing and self-defeating hypocrisies, while the children's utter lack of guile heads into ugly, violent places. Never a fun movie, Dogtooth turns into something almost unbearably sour by the time it wraps up in a concluding shot that goes on for several seconds longer than anyone could possibly endure, with implications that become increasingly horrifying as it lingers; but its meanness is pointed and sharp, never miserable for the sake of it, but insightful if dreadfully uncomfortable.

Lanthimos offers no escape from any of this: his long takes and cold medium shots give the film a slightly clinical feeling, and the deliberately stiff performances do not a blessed thing to relieve that feeling. It's unforgiving in the extreme, but brilliant in its dark way: a masterful study of humans destroying other humans for the sake of a little bit of power. Which might not be the pleasantest theme, but it's unfortunately one that always remains timely.

9/10

4 comments:

Jake said...

I didn't quite respond as completely to this movie as so many did, but I admit it stayed with me for some time. It disturbs me to think how meaningful it is at the moment, considering that, in a world that was only slightly better than this one, Dogtooth would probably be castigated as porn. But it's so evocative, so deliberate and so constantly able to subvert the expectation that I do hold it in high esteem even if it wouldn't make even the long list of films I loved best this year.

The.Watcher said...

Awesome review, as always, Tim! I just got this movie yesterday and am about to watch it tonight...I think I should have some alcohol handy.

Clare said...

Yet another literalist who missed the point.
dogtooth has nothing to do with dysfunctional families or homeschooling or overprotective parents -- that is, unless you're discussing "family" in the very broadest sociological context -- the family of mankind. Can we no longer "zoom out" any more? Is this what Fox news has done to all of us? The bigger picture is lost and we can't discern the larger themes in a great work of art anymore? sad

Rachel said...

I loved this film. I thought your review was insightful and dead-on. Dark, but thrilling.