Film: Giorgos Lanthimos: Dogtooth (2009)

I might be wrong, but with the exception of a brazen handheld shot toward the end, I only recall one camera move in all of Dogtooth – somewhere in the last third, a dolly across the surface of a pool from one character to two others, discussing the various kinds of sharks one could expect to encounter [out in the world].  And it’d be awfully hard, if that were the case, not to reference Tokyo Story, Ozu’s meticulously crafted meditation on the generational rifts between elderly parents and their grown children.  Assuming I’ve made a mistake and there are others, Giorgos Lanthimos still seems to be riffing on a familiar formal style, one in which the camera is not merely a passive observer, but is not even afforded the right to look where it (we) wants.  Lanthimos’ frames are all somehow off, looking beyond or underneath or askew at the action proper.  Eventually even the formal frames feel wrong – as the one in which the two sisters dance like marionettes to their brother’s guitar – because they’re breaking the film’s formal rigor.  Normal shots start to feel very weird and discomforting in this quiet, creepy little film about a profoundly dysfunctional Greek family cocooned since the children were born, presumably, in a gated house that doesn’t seem to have changed since the ’70s.

Lanthimos provides no further background except to imply that the father, who works in a curiously dental-shaped warehouse, makes excuses to his coworkers for his family’s social absence.  There is also an episode late in the film involving Rocky on videotape that hints at a more distinct social criticism, although it seems a facile explanation for just how subtly totalitarian the parents have chosen to raise their three children, now in their teens or twenties.  They know nothing of the world beyond the fence – planes passing overhead are regarded as toys that may fall into the backyard, cats are the most vicious creatures on earth, and a Frank Sinatra record is the voice of their grandfather, singing, as the father translates, a paean to strong family unity (“Fly Me to the Moon”).  There is no connection between sex and violence, although sex, as a family institution, is a privilege of the men, with whichever woman he chooses, and violence – against the flesh, against the mind – is essentially necessary and tolerated.

The only way out of this Orwellian, anti-Ozu, THX-1138 dreamscape of a nightmare is in the teeth: a child can leave the nest when his or her dog’s teeth fall out.  Those canines, the ones that help you rip meat and defend yourself – as soon as you lose them, you can leave the protection of the home.  There might be a deeper complexity lurking in Lanthimos’ film, but primarily he plays it all for comedy: dark, quiet, funky comedy, the kind that crawls up on you while you’re trying to figure out how the film works.  He neither explains anything nor lets the characters – particularly the children – behave like self-conscious individuals, at least not right away.  How they got to be near-adults without rejecting this sort of control by default, as maturing teenagers, is not important.  And to an extent, I applaud that.  Lanthimos posits a situation and runs with it.  But I also think he’s got a frailer touch, at least as a storyteller, than this film deserves; Roy Andersson built You, the Living (2007) of essentially the same self-contained lunacy, but let it focus in purpose as he went along into a beautifully funny discussion of loneliness – the funnier it got, the greater sadness it registered.

Not that predictability is in any particular way a measure of film’s worth, but I had the closing scenes of Dogtooth pretty well presumed after a while, and I’m not sure Lanthimos wanted that, or cared very much.  At a certain point movies like these start running on autopilot as narrative devices, committed to wrapping out a story for us without breaking its own rules.  Give Lanthimos credit for leaving us on a shot that answers nothing but implies several possible outcomes, each of which work for the film – although none lend it greater depth as a focused work of intellect or art.  Actually, the film’s best scene comes a bit earlier, in an exchange between the parents spoken with the children just outside the room, with exaggerated mouthing but without voices, so as not to be heard.  For a moment there is a sense that one of the parents recognizes this hellish environment for what it is, but the other kills any hope for escape with a decision of monstrous dimensions.

The short scene is very dark, and very funny, and lends a comic bent to what comes next, but stuff like this needs either greater consequences or none at all to fully flower, and I think Lanthimos takes the middle road.  Which is sort of where his film has been going all along.  If he’s really riffing off Tokyo Story, he’s kind of done everything right: the formal framing, the vignettish narration, the completely consistent performances, the reversed family dynamics.  Lanthimos, I believe, knows what movie he’s trying to make.  The French have done well to award it at Cannes with the prize for Un certain regard – with what regard, I’m not certain, but un for sure.

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