Director Yorgos Lanthimos offers the ultimate example of parental control gone mad in the subversive, mystifyingly oblique Dogtooth (2009). In this amusingly minimalist work we’re transplanted behind the walls of a remote compound where a father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michelle Valley) have indoctrinated their children to accept a narrowly-conceived worldview of their own creation. This insulated trio of offspring – a son and two daughters, seemingly all in their late teens – has been denied access to the outside world their entire lives, relying on their parents to expand their minds through a very specific form of education.
This has succeeded in providing them with a warped, off-kilter perception of mundane things, often assigning very different definitions to concepts and objects. They have no idea what a cat is for instance and there’s a perversely funny scene where one strays onto the grounds before being beset upon by a fearful son with a pair of garden shears. Cat lovers look away!
Is it all for the purpose of satisfying some wicked sense of amusement? There’s little exposition or motivation imparted, denying us any rationalised justification for this forbidding environment’s existence. Lanthimos simply tosses us down the deep well of his imagination to fend for ourselves. He doesn’t even allow his characters to be humanized on a basic level; other than Christina – the blindfolded young woman the father sneaks from his workplace to ‘service’ his son – the family members aren’t even afforded the familiarity of names.
Dogtooth is inspiringly idiosyncratic, an ambiguous merger of absurdist humour and darkest, probing drama. Sometimes the absurdist vignettes reach beyond their grasp and come off feeling self-consciously excessive or silly. But the director’s aim mostly hits its mark, ensuring a compelling and uncomfortable night at the cinema.
Lanthimos, in a stroke of genius, doesn’t really allow his film, co-written with Efthymis Filippou, to settle into any predictable rhythm; he tweaks its tone like an obsessive, eccentric musician. He even flirts with taboos like boredom-alleviating-incest whilst inserting strangely clinical moments of sexual activity and violence into his evasive, unsettling narrative.
As the external world slowly begins to impinge upon the steady ratification of the parents’ universe and the meticulously manufactured facade becomes more difficult to uphold, Dogtooth makes you laugh and grimace, often in the same moment. It could almost be viewed as a twisted fairytale secluded between the pages of an ogre’s personal collection. It’s never possible to predict where this challenging film is headed and the strangely elliptical ending too revels in being an arbitrary point of cessation rather than fulfilling the conventional expectation of an easy conclusion.