Father knows best?

Pub date August 31, 2010
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm Review

FILM A man, his wife, and their three children live in a country house with a swimming pool and a huge yard enclosed by a high fence. So far, so good. But the kids, who don’t have names, appear to be in their 20s. They’ve never left the property, and they won’t, Dad (Christos Stergioglou) says, until they lose a “dogtooth,” at which time they’ll be mature enough to deal with the terrors of the outside world. In the meantime, they’re trapped in the only world they’ve ever known, carefully constructed by their domineering father.

Dad’s laws shape just about everything, from language (to them, a “phone” is a salt shaker) to entertainment (lots of physical, competitive games); he tosses plastic airplanes into the garden and tells the kids they fell from the sky. He also provides his son (Christos Passalis) with a sex partner (the two daughters get zilch), a security guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) who woodenly services the lad and is paid for her time and her discretion.

Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos, who picked up the Prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes for this slice of disturbing domesticity, offers little explanation for Dad’s motives, or why Mom (Michelle Valley) goes along with his plan. They watch porn, so they’re not religious extremists. Dad isn’t fooling around with the daughters (though incest among the siblings is eventually, creepily encouraged). The only hint comes from one of few scenes set outside the family’s compound, in which Dad goes to check on the progress of the family’s soon-to-be new dog (the plan is, of course, to tell the kids that Mom has given birth to it). “Dogs are like clay, and our job here is to mold them,” the trainer explains. “Every dog is waiting for us to show it how to behave.” Indeed. It’s pretty clear Dad — master of his own private North Korea — is aware of that concept.

Though Dogtooth‘s main themes enfold cruelty and child abuse, it also deploys the kind of black humor and button-pushing that fans of shock-trader Harmony Korine would appreciate. There is casual violence, extreme animal cruelty, full-frontal nudity, several disturbing sex scenes, and maybe the most alarming dance routine ever captured on film. Its performer, the family’s eldest daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), has been pushed to the brink. Clandestine newness — a coveted sparkly headband, a crash course in cunnilingus, and especially the discovery of the wonderful world of Hollywood (including 1976’s Rocky) — has made her stir-crazy. Though it’s unclear how this half-formed human would fare in the outside world, it’s impossible not to root for a jailbreak.

DOGTOOTH opens Fri/3 at the Sundance Kabuki.