Retrospective Film Review: Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth

Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Lanthimos’ Dogtooth is an exercise in mesmeric, rubber-necking awfulness. Where the surreal allegory begins and distressingly realistic documentation of abuse ends is unclear.

There’s certainly more in the director’s shot, composition, and screenplay that suggests further insight than just sensationalist gawping at the wreckage, but like Tom Six’s Human Centipede with which this film shares the terror of unspeakable acts that occur in the remote confines of manicured-lawned suburbia, there’s a real compulsion to bear witness whatever the terrifying outcome.

The plot concerns a father and mother who have imprisoned their two daughters and son within the boundaries of their home with the simplest of tools; they operate a home-schooled bespoke vocabulary of terminology with certain words being assigned absurd, surreal meanings; their oldest, unseen sibling lives just beyond the tall hedgerowed perimeter; tales of cats as human-hunting apex predators keep the children inside, and like some bizarre, organic coming-of-age skin-shedding, only the loss of an incisor can permit an exit from the grounds.

In keeping with the woozy, dream-like concept, cinematographer Thimios Bakatatakis bathes the pastoral familial back-yard in milky greens and whites, while Lanthimos delights in skewing his frames, cropping faces and heads, and bleeding sound from one scene to the next. The result is a rather bleak look at the fragility of child-raising – fertile subject matter for this unusual horror film. We are asked to consider the confidence we have in biological protocol and inevitable cultural normality as illusory and as delicate as the mere whisper of an idea rather than an ordained certainty. Like most works of fiction that shock us out of complacency, Dogtooth isn’t pleasant, but it sure stays with you.