Does anybody ever get riled up about Foreign Language Oscar nominees? Haven’t we been taking that category for granted for a while now, counting on universal tales of triumph over adversity (Life is Beautiful), or “current events” with cosmopolitan airs (The Secret in Their Eyes), and never really getting around to watch them? Dogtooth, the Greek film that topped Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, makes you wonder what the Academy was thinking. In a good way.
The Greek home life satire Dogtooth is equal parts disturbing and fun. And after winning a big award at Cannes, it’s an unlikely candidate for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
The story is about a petty and perverse dad (Christos Stergioglou), who imprisons his family within their suburban compound. He alone leaves daily, for work at the factory he owns. But he loses control of his three teenagers (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis) and their disturbed mom (Michele Valley)—who seems to be there by choice—when he introduces to the totalitarian homestead a security guard from the factory (Anna Kalaitzidou) who is responsible for, well, certain services.
With its shrewdly Dadaesque language recombinations (words that come from outside the compound are given new meaning, so “sea” means armchair), cool cinematography that obscures faces in frames, and poignant perversions of Bach and Sinatra, Dogtooth is one heady exercise. But of course all the sexual tension and sinister violence keep things from getting too cerebral. There is real aesthetic pleasure to be had here. But it’s the same kind you get from admiring the craftsmanship of a deadly weapon. Lanthimos makes the most of that soft and inviting Mediterranean light—which is about as sunny an atmosphere as his sullen subject can take.
The result is an angry, absurdist film that rebukes oppressive social rituals with straightfaced brutality: It’s like Luis Buñuel meets Michael Haneke! Fun! To non-film-nerds, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ grimly funny, nerve-poking satire, co-written with Efthimis Filippo, may have to remain an acquired distaste. Survivors of especially sheltered adolescences could wind up cringing in dark corners and trembling like frightened animals—or recommending the movie to everyone they see. The best thing is that the film never loses its nerve.
The DVD includes a useful interview with the director, who explains his original impulse toward something like science-fiction—a way of wondering about the future of families. A bleak future, apparently. He also says that as a moviegoer he doesn’t like having things explained to him right from the beginning, preferring instead to do a little work of his own to make sense of it all. Hence the decision to avoid a title like How Not to Deal With Your Children’s Adolescent Sexual Curiosity. Oh, and the characters don’t get names. With Dogtooth, Lanthimos has made a film for himself. And for our Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Who knew?
It might not win the Oscar, but no matter. This is the country where Amy Chua wrote her memoir Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother, in which the author suggests that effective childrearing requires not merely strictness but also a spur of competition-stoking cruelty. So it seems safe to say that certain Puritan austerities still linger in the American soul. It’s fun to wonder how we’ll all really feel once we’ve let Dogtooth sink in.