Saturday, August 20, 2011

Overlooked Gems #2: Dogtooth

Grade: 90 (A-)

Children grow under the influence of their parents, more often than not adopting their views until adolescence, when their lives are shaped by their hormones and growing sense of independence. Mostly. But we also live in a world where hateful groups can raise their children any which way they desire. A white supremacist parent can infuse their children with enough hate for a lifetime. The Westboro Baptist Church raises their children under the belief that homosexuals, soldiers, foreigners, etc. all belong in hell. And in groups as insular and radical as a cult, outside influences are so hard to come by that one can only wonder what it would take for someone to break from the influence of that group. What outside influence could change the views of those born and bred in their tiny, horrifying bubbles?

The Greek film Dogtooth takes this question to an extreme: one family. A father, mother, son, and two daughters. These children have lived in isolation their whole lives. They have never left the confines of their home. Their yard is fenced off from other neighbors, and they have no contact with the outside world. Their mother and father have decided to raise their children this way as a way of controlling them. No outside influences are allowed. Obedience is stressed. Often they play mind games with their children as a way of dominating over them. For example, everyday items are given new names (a salt shaker is referred to as a “phone”). The children are told that airplanes are toys. The only videos they have are home movies. A Frank Sinatra recording is said to be a recording of their grandfather, and since none of the children speak English, the father “translates” the song into a new meaning. The children play games under the order of their parents. The parents refer to a “brother” next door who is never seen or heard from. It would be a terrifying experiment if the parents were likened to scientists, but the truth is far more sinister: they want their children to obey them and to grow under their influence and theirs alone. If there’s an award for worst film parents, these two would be difficult to trump.

Of course, a creepy portrait of a cult-like family could only go so far without becoming a mere freakshow on film. The stasis must be broken for the story to go anywhere. Enter Christina, a young woman who works as a security guard at the father’s factory. The father pays her to perform sexual favors for his growing son. Christina goes outsider the boundaries of the relationship and begins to interact and unwittingly influence the daughters. As with any adolescents experiencing a sexual awakening, ignorance can only last so long.

From there, it would be best to go into Dogtooth without knowing where it’s heading. The film is an oddity: a truly unpredictable experience at a time where films around the world have grown increasingly predictable. In the 96-minute runtime, Dogtooth is full of shocks, horrors, and scenes full of such strangeness that they cannot be explained. Best be forewarned: Dogtooth is as disturbing a film as there is today. It is cut from a similar cloth as Michael Haneke’s Cache or Funny Games or Lars von Trier’s Dogville (albeit without Haneke’s schoolmarmish scolding or von Trier’s glee in making his characters suffer). It is, without a doubt, not a film for all tastes.

Perhaps some astute filmgoers will note that Dogtooth may stretch the definition of “overlooked”. It was released to wide acclaim in 2010, was a surprise Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film, and became a word-of-mouth art-house hit. And yet I include it anyway, firstly because it’s a blast to talk about, and secondly because it’s a recent enough release that many may not have yet discovered it. It is now available on DVD for those brave enough to seek it out. If nothing else, it would be a more palatable experience to squirm in the comfort of your own home rather than in a theatre.

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