10th Belfast Film Festival review
The dysfunctional family, or even the pernicious elements within a so-called normal family, is a well-established subject in the cinema, providing reels of material worthy of examination, humour and satire. It was certainly one of the pillars of society assailed by Luis Buñuel and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German director in particular one of the most fierce critics of the family unit (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, Chinese Roulette, The Third Generation), seeing reflected in it all the ills and evil of German society perpetuated through the generations. Among present-day filmmakers, François Ozon (Sitcom, 8 Women, 5x2) and Michael Haneke (The Seventh Continent, Hidden, The White Ribbon) carry on the tradition from their respective viewpoints, directly challenging the foundations of the institution of marriage in the case of Ozon, seeing the ills of our society reflected in the bourgeois family values in the case of Haneke. If Dogtooth lies somewhere between the extremes of Ozon and Haneke, being as much humorous as it is unsettling, and if the question of satire is never made explicitly in relation to Greek society, Giorgos Lanthimos’s film strips back the layers of the family unit in a manner that is no less shocking and effective.
What is most striking about what Dogtooth reveals, is just how delicate is the balance of the family unit and just quite how much personal damage can be wreaked upon the psyche when its most fundamental elements – the trust and authority of the parents – are challenged or corrupted. This is established in the first few minutes of the film when we are shown the children – a boy and two girls, all young adults – being taught the meaning of words via tape-recorded lessons. The words in question are harmless, everyday words, but their definitions have been clearly twisted to mean something else entirely. It transpires that the parents, through various absurd means – warning them of violent creatures lurking outside that an invented brother behind the tall fence is striving to keep at bay – are conspiring to keep the children isolated from the world, and have clearly done so since they were little. Whether they belong to some kind of cult, are conducting some kind of experiment (the children often wear all white like they were laboratory mice) or are simply disturbed and over-protective isn’t entirely clear – we never see any “normal” society in relation to it – but the lengths to which the deceit is taken is quite bizarre. To account for “zombies” as “little yellow flowers” is one thing and somewhat understandable, but to purposely hide even the meaning of the word “carbine” for no good reason strangely appears rather more sinister and disturbing.
There are applications here to society as a whole and, inevitably, to specific aspects dealing with sexual dysfunction that reflect some of the more troubling stories we have seen in the news lately in relation to child abuse and, in particular, to the case of Josef Fritzl in Austria, who kept his daughter and the children he had with her living locked in basement rooms below the house, cut off entirely from the world outside. It’s no coincidence then that here the mother and father’s attempt to control and monitor every aspect over their children’s lives extends to their sexual behaviour, and that there’s evidence – graphic evidence, the viewer should be warned – that there’s a strong element of sexual dysfunction underlying the behaviour of the parents that is passed down and has a significant impact on the children also. It’s a remarkable combination of satire, humour and deeply unsettling imagery, all of it filmed in a deadpan manner to disturbing effect, the static camera giving the viewer no option but to confront what is shown head-on.
This is pushing things rather further than Ozon or Haneke (if not Buñuel or Fassbinder), who all at least operate in some kind of naturalistic environment, but what is ultimately rather shocking about Dogtooth is the eventual realisation that there’s nothing at all exaggerated about the situation it depicts either. While it appears to be surreal, absurdist and non-naturalistic in a Buñuelian manner, in reality Dogtooth realistically and forcibly brings home just how important and formative are the influences, instructions, rules and the environment that we are exposed to; how vulnerable we are, as a family and as a society, to misinformation, lies and abuse; and the ultimate damage that can be brought upon it from even the slightest deviations from the norm. This of course raises the inevitable questions about what exactly is the norm, since the traditional family unit (and social conditioning) is just as capable of causing profound harm as much as it is capable of being nurturing and protective – and that in fact, as Dogtooth shows imaginatively and most convincingly, it’s while believing that we are being good and protective that we can often do the most harm.