Dogtooth (aka: Kynodontas) is an odd film. Actually, it’s a very odd film. This makes it difficult to review – the fact that the film is so unconventional, and exists within its own rules, means that there’s no real cinematic frame of reference or comparison. I haven’t seen much Greek cinema, but if the rest of their films are even half as interesting as this one, I feel that I must investigate further…
Three teenagers are confined by their parents to a large, isolated country house and taught to fear the world outside the high fences surrounding the property. They spend their days competing in odd, seemingly random tasks in order to win stickers from their father, listening to tapes made by their mother that teach them new words and their meanings, and watching home movies of the family.
Any new word that comes to them from outside the family is given a new meaning by their parents. Hence, a ‘zombie’ is a small yellow flower, a ‘pussy’ is a big light, and the ‘sea’ is a kind of armchair. None of the teenagers have names: they are simply known as Son, Eldest Daughter, and Youngest Daughter. They have no real identities – who they are and what they are is formed completely by the lessons they’ve been taught by their insanely controlling parents.
Nobody is allowed off the grounds until their ‘dogtooth’ has fallen out, and even then they must be in the car (even to go a yard or so outside the gates); and they are not allowed to learn how to drive until the tooth grows back. They are taught that the aeroplanes flying overhead are actually tiny plastic toys, and whenever one falls into the garden they fight each other to retrieve the prize. Cats are flesh-eating monsters, and if seen in the garden they must be killed.
The only other person allowed in and out of this weird set-up is Christina, a security guard at the factory where the father works. He brings her to the house blindfolded, where she services the son’s sexual needs for hard cash. Eventually, her presence brings tension, particularly when she becomes bored with her end of the deal and starts offering Eldest Daughter gifts to perform cunnilingus. Eventually the father violently expels her from the unit, and Eldest Daughter is chosen as her replacement. But Eldest Daughter is growing restless. She wants to experience what is outside the fence. Her curiosity causes violent repercussions.
Despite being ostensibly an art-house oddity, this is a brilliant, compelling and rather disturbing film (much more chilling than something like recent swill-fest The Human Centipede). The script plays with themes of language, identity, and enforced roles within the community (even such a small, bizarre community as this one), and the result is a mesmerising piece of cinema which, tonally, veers between uncomfortable satire and extreme psychological horror.
There are parallels with the recent Josef Fritzl case in Austria, and the facts of that situation were never far from my mind as I watched the film. A more cinematic reference is possibly the dogme films of a few years ago: there’s an austerity to the filming, a sense that there’s little or no flab on the bone. Each scene means something; every bit of dialogue adds to the whole.
The father is a man given to sudden bursts of extreme violence, and this makes it believable that he can hold his children prisoners in this carefully fabricated world. The mother is more passive, but equally as domineering. The children have never known anything different. To them, this is all normal: it is simply how life is. Until, of course, Eldest Daughter begins to have ideas of her own.
Dogtooth is one of those films where I was unsure of my feelings as I watched it, but in retrospect is in fact a remarkable piece of work. I haven’t stopped thinking about its themes – or its ambiguous ending – since the final credits rolled. And that, my friends, makes it a film well worth seeking out. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve seen this year.