The latest film from director Giorgos Lanthimos concerns a pair of unnamed, affluent parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley) whose take on raising children involves physically, intellectually and emotionally confining their offspring to the lush grounds of a gated home. Filmed almost entirely within the tropical estate, the picture might as well be set on Neptune — reason and compassion are as vacant in the film as oxygen in the cosmos.
Indoctrinated with the belief that man-eating cats lurk on the other side of the wall, the three grown siblings (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni and Hristos Passalis) pass the time with contests of physical endurance in the backyard and swimming pool. The father also provides an understandably catatonic security guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) from his factory to have sex with his son once a week. The two daughters, however, are allowed no such outlet for their desires.
Allegorically, Lanthimos is treading the same social territory as Pier Paolo Pasolini did in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Those with weak stomachs will be relieved to hear that Lanthimos spares us the banquet of feces and circle of mutilation that propelled Pasolini’s picture into the clouds of cinematic infamy. Still, the political implications of Dogtooth retain some urgency while also wearing a face of obsidian humor.
Much credit is owed to Stergioglou’s almost impossibly straight-faced performance as the father. Heavy on blubber, with a permanent pooch-like glare, Stergioglou’s portrayal of the father is at once nauseating and arresting. Lanthimos dares us to laugh when the father teaches the entire family to ward off the fabled cats by loudly barking or nearly bashes one daughter’s head in with the television remote as punishment. But both acts are too unnervingly real to be found humorous.
The children are just as effective in their constantly frozen state. All three have unusual ways of resolving quarrels, including a butcher knife on bare skin, but Lanthimos never allows us to forget the origin of their perverse definitions of discourse and discipline.
The wink of recognizance one tends to expect from players in such a willfully unpleasant picture never comes, evoking not only bewilderment but also empathy.
These young actors are fearless in their portrayal of naked sexuality, conducted here with the warmth and passion of a circumcision. By putting the parts of his actors on clinical display, Lanthimos manages to dehumanize the body and its needs more than any director in recent memory. Even David Cronenberg, the arguable master of venereal discomfort, is outdone here.
To what end Lanthimos and his cast have pushed the envelope of popular comfort and taste depends on one’s familiarity with current events. At its basest layer, Dogtooth is a vicious satire on the modern plutocracy. Without a doubt, mother and father have mastered their brood and castle, but at the same time sapped any vibrancy — a fact made grimly plain by Thimios Bakatakis’s stark cinematography.
Such complete control might seem outlandish to those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Guantanamo Bay or Josef Fritzl’s basement. Whether personal or political, existential captivity remains a modern instrument of domination and, in this film’s case, self-gratification. We get the sense that the father, in his own youth, would have enjoyed regular visits from a female security guard and has merely bequeathed his son one of many gifts by caging him for his entire life, tossing the occasional treat between the bars.
Therein lies the film’s most ghastly idea. Others, including Pasolini, have explored human subjugation powerfully, but Lanthimos goes one step further, suggesting that the world may collectively desire such predetermined authority. The film’s release in the midst of the Wikileaks scandal forces us to ask whether we are invigorated or incapacitated by the notion of freedom through transparency.
As the whole clan nervously approaches the estate entrance in a pivotal scene, fearfully barking out at those imaginary cats lurking in the dark, the film finally becomes a scream of desperation, smartly silenced until this moment.
Whether this is our future or our fantasy, Lanthimos is unwilling to decide. Such affirmation lies in the minds of the viewers — those willing enough to watch this savage, uncompromising work of horror.