Despite the surreal setting and the characters that are barely recognizable as human, Giorgos Lanthimos‘s Dogtooth does get under your skin. Although the film may at times seem “as much an exercise in perversity as an examination of it” (A.O. Scott, The New York Times), Mr. Lanthimos manages to show very vividly that the human impulse to be free and to explore cannot be contained. Even though the outcome of that impulse will always remain uncertain. In that sense, this movie could serve as an allegory for many a crumbling repressive regime.
Dogtooth demands the viewer’s attention immediately because it starts by introducing us to a linguistic puzzle that is all the more confusing if you have to depend on subtitles: two girls and a boy in their late teens (who will remain nameless throughout the movie) sit in their underwear in a bathroom and listen to a tape that explains new words to them. But the meaning that is given by the voice of the recording is obviously wrong (“a carbine is a beautiful white bird”). One of the girls proposes a new game of endurance that involves holding your finger in a stream of boiling hot water. In this scene as in others, “the film’s purposeful weirdness is conveyed with an unaffected simplicity” (Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times). There is no nondiegetic music, the acting is robotic and shots are often awkwardly framed. Mr. Lanthimos seems to abide by his own Dogme rules.
As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that we are witnessing a decidedly unhealthy arrangement. The three kids are siblings being held captive by their parents in an artificial world created to keep them safe from impure influences. They never go outside the confines of their idyllic villa, convinced that unspeakable danger lurks there. Only their father ventures outside to his job at a factory and from time to time he brings back Christina, one of the security guards at the plant, to make sure his son can give free rein to his sexual urges (in scenes that are explicit but entirely without passion, in keeping with the tone of the movie).
About halfway through the film the point about the bizarre goings-on inside this compound has been made and you begin to wonder where the story is headed. It is then that Lanthimos (who co-wrote the scipt with Efthymis Filippou) introduces a brilliant narrative device that sets a climax in motion. Without giving away too much, I will say that it involves a delicious use of Hollywood classics. Lines from Rocky and Jaws may be somewhat hard to recognize or enjoy when in Greek with subtitles. But Lanthimos draws everyone in for the film’s gut-wrenching finale by quoting a choreography from Flashdance. It’s only when the credits roll that you realize you have grown fond of these cardboard kids, no doubt because of what they represent.