The only thing more puzzling than the movie Dogtooth is the New York Times blurb on its poster that reads, “Hilarious!”. It’s a foreign film—possibly the foreign film, if Oscar is kind—but I’m pretty sure a sullen-looking woman with blood running down her face doesn’t translate to “comedic romp” in any language. But I went in with an open mind, which—by film’s end—was cracked and splattered across the realms of the inconceivable. This is a seriously disturbed horror story that deserves to be seen by anyone decrying the lack of originality and emotion in movies.
Like The Human Centipede, Dogtooth takes place in a big, secluded house where a deranged old man performs experiments on three helpless innocents. Don’t worry, Father (Christos Stergioglou) doesn’t fuse anybody’s anus to anyone else’s mouth; his captives are his children, for God’s sake. No, his brand of exploration involves sequestering his teenagers from the outside world at all costs, including convincing them that stray cats are ferocious creatures who must be killed and teaching them incorrect word usage (“vaginas” are called “keyboards”). Father also provides a sex partner for his son, Son (Hristos Passalis), in the form of Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a comely security guard from his factory job.
Anal fusion doesn’t sound so bad now, eh?
While Father works, Mother (Michele Valley) stays home with the kids. She lets them roam the family’s lush estate, indulging in dips in the pool and games of blindfolded, Reverse-Hide-and-Seek. Their only education is a sexual one, with Christina secretly bartering with the girls for bejeweled headbands and hair gel in exchange for cunnilingus.
Teenage incest is an awful subject for entertainment. Fortunately for Dogtooth, the filmmakers leave just enough questions unanswered to put the audience somewhat at ease. For example, I would’ve had no idea that the kids are supposed to be teenagers had I not read the synopsis. A quick IMDb search reveals that Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) was about thirty-five at the time of shooting. All of the children look well into their twenties, though their behavior looks to have been arrested at the age of nine.
There’s also the issue of the family’s legitimacy. Another film Dogtooth brings to mind is Disney’s Tangled, in which Rapunzel is kidnapped at infancy and raised in a hidden tower by a scheming sorceress. Both films feature characters who are sheltered from the outside world by pure manipulation on the part of adults they trust implicitly. With this in mind, I can’t say for sure that the three siblings in Dogtooth are actually related (true or not, it helps the numerous sex scenes go down a little easier). If they are blood relatives, we must question what Father and Mother’s deal is. Are they related? Or did they meet in a Greek Kidnapper’s chat room?
Director Giorgos Lanthimos and his co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou have created a brilliant, unique look at a group of people that could never (hopefully) exist. Sure, it’s exploitative and sick, but it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in these sad lives. Dogtooth benefits from the indie aversion to over-explaining everything, reveling in the weird ambiguity of a story that is essentially a ninety-minute second act.
We wonder how the parents can afford such nice digs, and where Father’s penchant for beating people over the head with electrical equipment comes from. We marvel that the sisters’ naiveté can run so deep that they believe a toy airplane that Father left for them in the yard is actually a crashed version of the ones they see overhead—yet so shallow that they’re able to re-enact scenes from Rocky and Jaws; indeed, the only media in the household seems to be the porn in the parents’ bedroom.
The subject matter is matched by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’ beautiful compositions. From the awkwardness of Son’s test of his sisters’ virility in a bathtub three-shot, to a beautiful metal sink full of blood and tooth fragments, there are few frames in Dogtooth that couldn’t be ripped out and hung in a gallery. I also loved the early scenes—in retrospect, not so much as they were happening—where we see the characters at strange, cropped angles, acting in a monotone that’s cloying until the story helps us understand why no one in the film is particularly expressive. The camera joins in the dysfunction by showing us unsettling subject matter in ways that tell the brain things aren’t quite right.
I don’t know that Dogtooth has a point, other than as an exercise in making the audience uncomfortable (that is, unless you find it to be hilarious). If there are undertones about homeschooling, I didn’t see them—and I doubt the Greeks are engaged in the same bogus fundamentalist culture wars that we are. I guess it comes down to whether or not people will tolerate a gorgeously acted, superbly shot movie about captivity and sibling sex. I loved almost every squirmy, subtitled second of it. I suggest you give this cinematic Rorschach Test a try before making with the dirty looks.