Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2009, Dogtooth is a perverse thrill of a movie, the work of a dirty old/young mind that Luis Buñuel might envy. Like Buñuel, Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos gives devilish riffs on absurd social norms. Every shot in the film seems to encompass its own strange widescreen universe, but they mischievously congeal to tell the story of parents so repressive and children so socially underdeveloped (yet physically fulsome), that the simplest everyday encounters tick like time bombs.
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And yet the movie is very quiet. Lanthimos uses static compositions whose placid surfaces give the deceptive impression that everything is normal. The film’s seething effect builds through a series of fiendishly well calculated juxtapositions. At scene transitions, Lanthimos lingers on a moment pulsating with mystery, menace and bizarre titillation, then cuts to a disorienting, equally mysterious new image:
Below, a sister’s confusion while engaging in child’s play cuts to a blindfolded… captive?
Often, as the dust settles on a follow-up shot, we find ourselves laughing. The father visits a hardcore obedience school, where all the dogs are trained only slightly less severely than Spartans:
But his own dog is no warrior:
Dad may not have raised his offspring like guard dogs, but he has caged them. They are unaware of their very adult physical appearance and attractiveness, which cinematographer Thimios Bakatatakis‘s sculptural use of bright, diffuse light makes palpable in ways that pornographers would envy.
When Lanthimos cuts from their innocent experimentation to a shot of the back of someone’s head, it would be banal if it weren’t for how sharply the figure offsets the rest of the frame. In such incoming shots, either the person or the environment is out of focus; no racking between the two. We are fixed on what we’re fixed on. This claustrophobic framing makes palpable both the sisters’ cloistered reality and the mother’s willful obliviousness.
Two worlds: playful innocence (the kids frolicking in the pool) and drab adult realities (vintage porn playing on the parents’ TV), separated by a cut. Yet both are photographed with eyes that manage to be sensual and clinical at once:
In another single-cut leap, we go from a bedroom, where one of the sisters learns how to use sex as a manipulative tool, to the kitchen, where her brother patiently waits for mommy to administer his daily regimen. He has already had his own confusing lesson about adult sex and violence at this point, so this rare instance of harsh direct sunlight is almost like an interrogator’s lamp:
Yet, despite picking up stray bits of information from the outside world that provoke yearning and rebellion, the kids are still in the grip of family rituals, as this cut sings:
Ultimately, this strange family stands as an allegory for modern disinformation shrouding its subjects in an illusion of security. Lanthimos understood that the relationship between images can be just as crucial to giving these ideas visceral impact as the relationship between its characters. With each disorienting cut, he drafts us as co-authors of some perverse insinuations. It’s a delicious, disturbing tease.
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist who writes for Capital New York, Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents and Slant/The House Next Door. He publishes the blog Big Media Vandalism.
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