Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 09, 2011 6:25 pm 
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Home schooling gone wild

Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth is an absurdist family tale in which three adult children (who have never been given names) are held prisoner by their factory manager father, while his wife also stays at home and only he is allowed to leave the house. Frankly, the blurb of this film made it sound so pointless and annoying that I chose to avoid it when it was shown as a part of the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center a year ago, and people who went to the screening told me afterward that I'd made the right decision. Yet in very limited release this year it has gotten what Metacritic calls "generally favorable reviews." The idea, such as it is, seems to have been arresting enough to have garnered the film the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes and a Best Foreign Oscar nomination. Finally I have seen Dogtooth at the IFC Center and I can say definitely: yes, it is attention-getting, but it is successful only as a provocation. Various comparisons come to mind: the Lars von Trier of Manderlay, the Orwell of Animal Farm; anti-utopias; Ionesco's plays; even the sick-making shut-in perversions of Pasolini's Salo. Haneke and Buñuel have been mentioned. But Dogtooth lacks the powerful ability to make you feel and think that those artists and their works have. If you remember Dogtooth, it's only because it's odd, not because of anything compelling about its home-movie level action or profound about its sketchy content. I also think of the Harmony Korine of Trash Humpers. But that movie has a troublingly authentic regional flavor and the feel of an ominous found object, while Dogtooth, for all its calculated moments of shock, seems much more the self-conscious conceptual piece, with consequent relative loss of impact. I was also reminded of Andrew Birkin's very successful film of Ian McEwan's novel about children hiding the death of their parents, The Cement Garden: but there again the film is powerful because its situation is strange, but its representation is hauntingly real.

The provocation of Dogtooth doesn't penetrate to a deeper level to make the enforced departure from everyday life justified. The screenplay is patchy, consisting of a series of vignettes that do not build. The conception contains fundamental flaws the audience can only accept if it wants to be provoked. If you see this as science fiction, it lacks the common feature of sci-fi and its major source of satisfaction, that of being thoroughly worked out, a complete alternate universe, implying wide-ranging commentary on the actual world. One of the first things critics mention is the alternative vocabulary the adult children are fed. "Excursion" is taught the children as a word for flooring, "sea" they are told means an armchair, "zombie" is a small yellow flower, "expressway" is a strong wind, "carbine" is a white bird, and so on. The trouble is this vocabulary is rarely seen in action, or given a point. It's just a sketchy way of showing this is a hermetically sealed world. It's not worked out. An opportunity is lost. What rich humor or deep Swiftian (or Orwellian) ironies there might have been. But instead, there are just a few moments of arbitrary absurdity.

The three siblings behave in a childlike manner, living for reward and punishments and engaging in games and challenges that their parents or they themselves invent. (Illogical: if they are wholly dominated by their parents, mainly their father, how come they're allowed to invent activities?) Sex is constantly referred to and a female security guard is brought by the father to have sex with his son. Later the siblings begin licking each other and seem on the verge of having incestuous relations. The sex is as crude and clumsy as in several of Bruno Dumont's films about brutish French country people (though with less appetite), presumably simply because the hapless son has never been taught about sex.

But wait a moment. Do you have to be taught sex? I thought that came naturally. The trouble is, these siblings are abstract constructs. Plain-looking, speaking with a general lack of affect, they have acquired no individuality. There is nothing much to make you remember them or distinguish one from the other. One of the many dubious assumptions is that artificially home-schooled offspring would acquire no separate personalities. They might, presumably, have developed differences that their parents would have repressed; but that isn't shown.

The siblings aren't allowed to leave. Why? It's just a given that the parents play this cruel manipulative game. They're told it's dangerous outside, and they are so infantilized they don't think beyond what they're told. They can only go, the father tells them, when their dogtooth falls out and a new one comes in, which of course will never happen. The concept of a closed system -- something that in the hands of a Jonathan Swift or a Thomas More would generate a whole rich world of ideas about human society and its limitations -- isn't thought through. Nor is the practical matter of how the parents could carry off this crime of enslavement. How can these three grown up siblings have been sealed off from knowledge when they watch videos (they do get hold of some)? The attractive villa where they live, with its large garden and swimming pool, isn't very far from the factory where the father works. Wouldn't information about the outside world creep in? The son is strong and athletic, yet it has not occurred to him to jump over the fence around the property. Somehow the idea that house cats pose a deadly threat and they dare not go out for fear of them seems unlikely to convince a robust young male. Lanthimos hasn't conceived of the brainwashing process in enough detail to make it convincing -- or interesting. But we do think, for a bit, about how bad it is to have the truth hidden from you.

Dogtooth moves toward no conclusion, though there is a growing level of violence and by the father toward the security guard, and by the siblings toward each other and toward animals. It is kept going mainly by that violence and the shock value of the sex.

Lanthimos' film is not without its peculiar tableaux, like the scene when the two daughters do an odd, later violent, dance, and the brother plays a guitar to celebrate their parents' wedding anniversary. The widescrean format, the expansive scenes of lawn and pool, can be beautiful. Elsewhere, the filmmakers try hard to achieve a yuck factor, when a bit of whimsy and humor might have been more in order. There is no conclusion, not even a set of progressive closing credits. Five minutes of fixed focus on a single set of credits all in Greek at the end of the film is as strange and puzzling as anything in the body of it, and as meaningful. Like the father, who succeeds in playing a Frank Sinatra record and convincing his poor misled kids it's their grandfather singing a message of love for them, Lanthimos is putting us on from start to finish in Dogtooth, and it only works if, like the three siblings, we don't know any better.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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