Want to feel good about your family? Watch Dogtooth.
This Greek import centers on a mother and father who have raised their three children in perverse seclusion. Now approaching adulthood, the two sisters and brother have their own arbitrary vocabulary (“telephone” stands for “salt”), engage in daily contests in order to earn stickers and are told if they leave the walled yard they’ll be torn apart by cats. Many times literal blindfolds are placed upon them, and metaphorically that’s how they’ve lived their entire lives.
It’s clear something is very, very wrong from the opening scene, as the siblings listen to their mother’s vocabulary “lesson” on tape. At the lesson’s end, the youngest girl suggests they see which of them can hold their finger under scalding water the longest – suggesting competitiveness and physical cruelty is also part of their unique language. It’s an uneasy combination that percolates through the rest of the film, threatening to erupt in a deeply disturbing way.
Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos proves to be an audience manipulator on par with Michael Haneke, who messes with our heads in ways that are both brilliant (Cache) and heinous (Funny Games). Lanthimos carefully arranges each frame, often leaving crucial action just beyond the edge of the screen. It’s a maddening technique at first – you want him to pan the camera here or tilt it there – until you realize Lanthimos is treating us the way these parents treat the kids. He only allows us to see what he wants us to, not what we “need.”
It becomes increasingly clear that one of these kids is going to snap – you’re just not sure which one, and when. It’s interesting that the parents begin to lose control when they let sex slip into their cloistered world. They’ve arranged for a woman to come and “service” their son once a week and her presence has a ripple effect on the entire household. She’s essentially the serpent in their deranged garden of Eden.
Dogtooth flirts with sadism, but it’s much more than a sick stunt (something you couldn’t say of Funny Games). The movie ultimately works as an intense allegory, not only for how parents will go to absurd lengths to control their kids, but also for the depravity of authoritarianism at large. Dogtooth indicts repression in all its forms, suggesting that it’s a sure way to turn society into a powder keg. As we’ve seen recently in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, sometimes iron fists get bit.