Retro Review: Dogtooth.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos creates a surreal and deranged family drama that is provocative but opaque.
After having reviewed Lanthimos’ latest film, The Lobster, I was curious about the nature of his body of work. The Lobster had some mesmerizing ideas and an incisive satirical edge early, but floundered about towards the end in frivolity and arbitrary provocativeness. I wanted to know if his earlier work was more focused and sustained. Could I find a feature length version of the best aspects of The Lobster? I looked first at one of his most acclaimed and controversial films, Dogtooth, for the answer. Unfortunately, Dogtooth feels like the epitome of the unfocused aspects of The Lobster instead of its best.
An authoritarian father keeps his family completely isolated from society within a walled compound. Together with his wife, who abets the scheme but seems to be a victim of the father’s stern will as well, they raise one son and two daughters, all three adults when we begin the story. They weave a story of unseen dangers outside the wall, saying that only the father’s car protects him when he leaves, and further tell the three that they have a brother who fled the compound and lives in constant misery and danger just outside the compound. The only outsider allowed to visit is Christina, a security guard for the father’s industrial company, who visits irregularly to provide sex for the son and companionship for the daughters. When Christina becomes frustrated by the son’s inexperience, she barters tokens from the outside world (including Hollywood movies) to the eldest daughter in exchange for sexual favors. This introduction of un-filtered society into the group begins the gradual destruction of the family’s carefully constructed bubble.
The definition of broken
Much like The Lobster, the acting in this film is stunted and stylized. While the performance does not feel as childlike as The Lobster, it remains uniformly affected and flat. The father and mother’s increasingly absurd lies about the outside world are delivered like a disinterested tour guide reading from a list of facts. The children concoct absurd rules and games for themselves that they seem oddly disconnected from. They profess to enjoy the activities, even to themselves, but they do so without evident emotion in their delivery. The only emotional affect scene is when the eldest daughter begins to mime scenes from Hollywood films, especially Rocky IV, but even as she pretends to take a beating from an imaginary Ivan Drago, she seems dull eyed and listless.
I don’t fault the actors, and I even applaud their ability to maintain the charade during some scenes that are nightmarish or completely absurd. They do a fine job, but the deadpan aspect of the delivery ends up being less charming in Dogtooth than The Lobster, mostly because it lacks the childish charm of the latter film, and partly because this film is not a pure allegory, and therefore unreal elements require more justification than they receive here.
No Room for realism
The plot of the film is reminiscent of the first half of the recent award winning film, Room. There are trapped individuals who have to create a fantasy of normalcy in order to remain sane, all while suffering deprivation, random violence, and sexual depravity. While Room attempts to render the characters as sympathetically as possible, Dogtooth strips its characters of much of what makes them relatable. They simply react to their surroundings in ways that are odd and alien. Much of this could be explained by the extreme isolation from society and the fact that they all seem to be taking their cues from the father, who is himself a monotone but mercurial figure, but Lanthimos goes to great lengths to make the proceedings surreal.
To what ends?
In The Lobster, the world is skewed and broken in order to serve the social satire. There is a definite allegory being created. In Dogtooth, the narrative seems trapped between a realistic drama and an absurdist allegory. The hegemony of the family, especially of fathers over children, and the societal mirroring of that dominance through patriarchal institutions of power seem to be one motif here, but they never coalesce into a direct treatment. Every aspect of this family is perverse, usually sexually so, and this may be a subtle critique of the family unit, but the extremes of this family seem like an unfair representative group! The father acts like a head of state, and the mother as his propaganda apparatus, supplying the children with taped messages of nonsense information mixed with true facts. The amateurish suppression of media and the granting of token favors such as home movie time or scripted music listening times (where the father translates Sinatra’s “Fly me to the Moon” as being about how good and decent family and home life is when given complete obedience) is redolent of authoritarian regimes. The film never quite fully develops those ideas into a cogent critique.
As in The Lobster, Lanthimos creates such a bizarre allegory that his social criticisms lack true force. The explosions of gratuitous sex and violence that punctuate the film, as well as the unhinged logic of this family make them easier to dismiss as valid comparisons to actual society. They go too far and lack consistency: they are neither consistently illogical nor completely illogical, and they erupt into violence at random intervals, like erratic volcanoes. A volcano you can’t predict ceases to be a natural phenomena and becomes only a proper object of fear. It’s gods and monsters again. A book like Lord of the Flies has monstrosity, violence and pervasive illogic, but it’s explicable. Dogtooth just misses that level of explication that would render its provocative nature a potent critique. The object being held up for scrutiny here is just unlike a real family enough to undermine its implied criticisms of real families or society writ large, but not so wildly dissimilar as to prove his points by juxtaposition.
The final word
Dogtooth certainly shows a relation to The Lobster visually and aesthetically. It has a beautiful visual style, as the compound is idyllic in its natural beauty. Lanthimos creates a curious habit of cropping his shots such that the actors’ faces are just out of frame, just often enough to become memorable. It first happens in the home movies, and hints that the physical actions of the film are going to shed more light on the true nature of the narrative than the expressions or words that actors actually employ. At 137 minutes, Dogtooth is a much easier film to view than The Lobster, and while it has a a slow pace, it moves along pretty uniformly, never giving you a reason to check the clock. The simple drama of the elder sister awakening to the wider world and lashing out against her prison is engaging. As a work of cinema, Lanthimos has created a polished artifact, even if the meta-issues may not fully coalesce.
The film starts early with a sexual encounter that is decidedly unnerving. I expected that the whole film was going to devolve into Lars Von Trier’s school of provocation for provocation’s sake, but Lanthimos quickly pulls back into a more subtle approach. He punctuates his film with lurid and grotesque scenes, but he never feels like simply a provocateur, throwing bombs just to see who screams. I can say that I appreciated the film for its craft and daring techniques, but I would not say that the experience is exactly enjoyable. There are some intriguing ideas on display, I just found the overall thesis hard to tease out and not fully realized (if I even “got it”, this may just be a film that shows you strange artifacts for oddity’s sake.) It’s worth a watch for students of film, but will unlikely appeal to a general audience.