The first sex scene in Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’s bracingly provocative follow-up to the still sadly undistributed Kinetta, sets the pace for the film’s mind-melting first act. A male, possibly in his late 20s, and a slightly older woman, probably in her mid-to-late 30s, strip unceremoniously and sit cross-legged mere centimeters apart from each other. They examine each other’s private parts—or at least, it looks like they’re respectively staring at each other’s crotches. This scene sets the standard for the film’s presentation of human interaction as a series of barbarous games and rituals that have no fixed meanings. Almost every scene is a new contest, and each contest has a new set of rules pulled out of thin air by the participants for reasons unknown. In any given sequence, the viewer may ask: “What are the rules for the game the protagonists just invented and how were they determined?” Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), the older woman, stares down at the man’s waist and her head rocks back and forth rhythmically. Does her repeated action mean something? Is it a new rule? Is there a set period of time she has to wait until before having sex with him and, if so, is she marking time by bobbing her head? How can you tell?
Both Dogtooth and Kinetta revolve around protagonists that practice new ways of bonding with each other through simulated violence and acts of overtly aggressive one-upsmanship. Kinetta revolves around a trio of strangers that unite to reenact and record on video murders at their original crime scenes. Dogtooth presents an equally diffuse social dynamic, this time focusing on a nuclear family ruled by a balding, schlubby patriarch (veteran theater actor Christos Stergiogiou), identified only as Father, who has secluded his adult children, two sisters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) and son (Hristos Passalis), from the outside world.
The children are forbidden from leaving the house and only understand what their parents have told them. Father has made them think of the world outside their house’s gates as a surreally hostile place by affixing new and hilariously strange meanings to commonplace objects and animals (e.g. cats are the most dangerous creatures of all, an assumption that leads to an unnerving confrontation later in the film). The children learn new words every day and the meaning of each new word is always more arbitrary than their real meanings (e.g. “pussy” means light switch).
Though Lanthimos has said that Dogtooth originally was created as a sci-fi story of sorts about how far a family will go to preserve its usefulness as a social unit, I maintain that the film’s main thrust is about the process of assimilating information about the world and subsequently forming one’s own identity. There’s a fantastic scene where Passalis’s character, billed as “big brother,” is in his house’s perfectly manicured backyard talking to himself. But he’s not really talking to himself, he’s talking to his brother, who may or may not exist. We learn that he’s talking to his sibling only because, when he immediately thereafter gets into trouble for throwing rocks over the domineering gate that borders the house’s backyard, he blames his bad behavior on his brother.
This scene is remarkable firstly for Lanthimos’s absolute formal control, specifically the way that the scene of the boy throwing rocks transitions mid-conversation to a close-up of big brother’s torso while he blames his brother and Mother (Michele Valley) coolly responds, “Your brother would never throw rocks.” That exchange is also incredible for the way it presents the film’s totally random lawlessness. Big brother is punished for lying by being forced to hold mouthwash in his mouth until Mother tells him to spit it out. So he sits there, not in pain but with an utterly blank look on his face for what feels like the longest time.
And from there, you may wonder if, when he motions to prematurely spit the liquid out, he’s actually in pain or if he just thinks he’s supposed to be. That thought may also lead you to question: Is that even mouthwash or is it some other mint-green-colored liquid in a label-less Listerine bottle? How much has our familiarity with the signifiers in the film already corrupted our viewing experience and lead us to think we understand what we’re looking at? Is Lanthimos teaching us what we’re looking at while the children are learning their new lessons? Or is it already too late for us to adapt to the film’s scavenged visual syntax, just as it’s probably already too late for our wayward young(ish) protags?
In any given scene of Dogtooth, the viewer may ask themselves many other simultaneously tangential but also essential questions just like that. Take the scene where Father asks Christina, “Do you wear the perfume I bought for you,” and she replies, “Yes,” to which he rejoinders, “Does it smell nice?,” pressing the issue. “It smells very nice,” she immediately reacts. But is that true? When he reaches in for a smell, is there even a scent? Countless similar questions like that arise in almost every scene: The fact that Lanthimos lingers a little after the two sisters have taken a homemade anesthetic to see who could stay knocked-out the longest makes you consider how they know what anesthetic is, how they made one using household ingredients and if, when they are both supposedly unconscious, they really are out cold. In any other movie, making so much of so little would be considered impossible. But the exactitude of Lanthimos’s every shot forces you to recognize an artist that knows exactly how controlled and vague each scene can and should be.
The strength of Dogtooth‘s central conceit comes from the fact that, while slippery-slope assumptions about what can and can’t be taken for granted are required to make the narrative rich with feigned and understood meanings, there are, without question, some facts that must be understood for the viewer to decipher the rest of the film. While the mouthwash scene is intentionally nebulous, there are other specific references to the outside world that we as viewers are supposed to implicitly understand, like inexplicable nods to Flashdance and a recording of Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” At the same time, there are any number of allusions that, when enacted, are revealed to be taboo within the family, like the watching of Rocky and Jaws videotapes.
Navigating the illogical rules that Father sets down for his family is exhilarating because Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Philippiou are so good at denying the viewer information. Like Father, Lanthimos parcels out tidbits of information not because he wants to punish us, as some have argued by comparing Lanthimos to master didactician Michael Haneke. Instead, Lanthimos feeds us only what information he knows we need in order to protect us, or, more specifically, to further allow us to revel in the mysteries of his narrative by refusing us any sense of closure, emotional, ontological, or otherwise.
Kino's video transfer is impeccable: The film's sunny colors are rich and bright and the print they used is almost entirely spotless (I practically jumped in my seat the first time I noticed a rare bit of grain). Though the film's soundtrack is fair lo-fi, the soundtrack sounds almost exactly like how it did in theaters. Scenes like the one where Younger Daughter is shrieking while cutting up her Barbie doll or the one with the cat are not mixed as well as they should be and don't have enough proportional balance between background noise and sounds the actors are making. Still, I can't help but think that those spikes in sound were intentional: For instance, the sounds of a VHS tape bludgeoning Older Daughter's head stands out to great effect.
Kino didn't include that many extras, but the ones they did include are rather good boilerplate features. First there's a down-to-earth interview with director Yorgos Lanthimos, which is comprehensive in the sense that it covers all the information about the production's history you might find in a press kit. Lanthimos is charming in a uniquely Greek way; he's notably withdrawn and drags out his sentences, suggesting he's thinking on the fly and assembling his thoughts as he says them (as a Greek-American, I unfortunately have fallen into this habit far too often). The gallery of still production photographs are interesting too as they provide further proof of Lanthimos's keen and exact eye for detail. The most interesting, though hardly essential feature on Kino's DVD release is the inclusion of three deleted scenes. You can see why all of them were cut, even if the alternate version of the "Fly Me to the Moon" scene is pretty funny. Instead of having the children listen raptly while Father mistranslates Sinatra's lyrics, the scene focuses on all three kids as they try to phonetically sing along. The gag of that scene is totally one-note, if rather satisfying, but again, the version in the theatrical cut is more blunt and hence more effective.
The possibilities for meaning in Dogtooth aren't inexhaustible, but they're more than enough to confirm the film's well-earned status as our favorite theatrical release of 2010.