Another sublimely ridiculous night at Academy Awards in the books, with its usual mix of the good (Trent Reznor grabbing Best Original Score, The King’s Speech’s expected sweep limited to four statues), the bad (Exit Through the Gift Shop losing Best Documentary; all the Best Song nominees – they should put this category out of its misery), and the weird (one host on uppers vs. the other on downers; that Bob Hope hologram). Still nothing that transpired last night could match my surprise when the single most stunning nomination was announced last month: Greece’s Dogtooth for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s not that the film is obscure – it made the top ten of last year’s IndieWire Critics Poll. But let’s just say it’s not a movie you would associate with the generally conservative tastes of the Academy.
Dogtooth is a sure-fire button-pusher concerning three post-adolescent, sexually ripe children who have lived their entire lives sealed within the family compound. Their over-protective parents have brought them up in bizarre fashion, perversely teaching them the wrong meanings of words (“sea” means “armchair”), while enlisting a young outsider to satisfy the sexual urges of their son. That’s just the tip of an iceberg of weirdness that includes incest, self-mutilation and Frank Sinatra.
These elements border on the preposterous, and yet they are filmed with stunning confidence. The story unwraps this warped microcosm without overt explanation, inviting the viewer to play anthropologist and decipher its screwy social codes. It helps that it’s shot with a seductive sense of composition, rich in visuals that are graphically pleasing yet slightly off-kilter. All of it is captured in ironically sunny, soft-focus tones, suggesting a childhood wonderland gone haywire.
Normally the Foreign Film category appeals towards the mainstream and middle-brow (proven by this year’s winner, In a Better World, a social-issues family drama that connects Denmark to Darfur), making the Dogtooth nomination a genuine head-scratcher. Maybe the Academy was distracted by how prettily Dogtooth is shot, or hypnotized by its deadpan rhythms. Or maybe a significant number of the nominating committee let their kids fill in the ballots. Whatever the case, Dogtooth’s nomination single-handedly made up for a sea of mediocre and predictable choices.
Still, the greater mystery is what to make of Dogtooth itself. Some dismiss it as an arthouse stunt that cheaply exploits sex and incest. Others read a furious social allegory that not only attacks abusive parents but any authoritarian institution that abuses its power to brainwash and oppress its subjects. It’s not too much of a stretch to see the film’s psychic and thematic links to the youth-led revolts sweeping across the Middle East. However much or little it amounts to is up for debate. Regardles, it’s a film that compels you to pay attention.