Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth won Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes film festival, an award given “to recognize young talent and to encourage innovative and daring works.” “Daring” is an understatement for Dogtooth, now a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Dogtooth bites very hard, and audiences all over the world cannot help but turn attention to its raw charm.
Though Dogtooth is only the second film by writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, the film reflects a precise, coherent style which has already come to characterize his work. Lanthimos combines horror, drama, and ultra-black satire in Dogtooth. The film hurls the audience into the lives of five members of a bizarre family, revealing gradually that the father and mother keep their young adult children completely isolated from the world. Without an awareness of social norms outside their insular family, the offspring have no sense of broader ethics. Here the premise of the film is born: In cutting their children off from the world, the parents have left them with only their family and their own flesh, leading to the performance of humanity’s most heinous acts.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the graphic violence and the sexual perversion in Dogtooth is Lanthimos’ presentation of the narrative. Everything is shot with a cool, observational deadpan. Against the film’s calm suburbian-utopia backdrop, Lanthimos is not afraid to introduce disturbingly graphic sequences with no warning. He shifts layers of focus masterfully, leaving some characters out of focus for minutes at a time, so their ghost forms linger in the indistinct background.
Lanthimos includes almost no non-diegetic music, leaving us to watch these acts in unaccompanied silence. In my favorite scene, we hear the brother play guitar while the eldest sister dances—the lack of other accompaniment adds to the efficacy this incredible display of human energy from siblings finally released from parental repression. Only the sounds of the actions themselves echo through the theater.
With only seven characters in the film with spoken lines, the film feels like a kind of simple play. Almost always contained within the walls of their home, with very few extras, Dogtooth forces us into the cabin fever of the family members. Though the film’s cast consisted entirely of non-professional actors, each performance was inspired. Much of the cast was recruited to audition for the film after worked working with Lanthimos on an earlier theater production. Mary Tsoni, who plays the younger daughter, is a singer in a punk band. Even more impressive was Aggeliki Papoulia, who plays the role of the oldest daughter—a twisted kind of primordial woman—with grit, passion, and pain.
When the coordinator of the Yale Hellenistic Society introduced the film at Wednesday night’s screening of the film, he said we may want to look away or leave the room during some scenes, and he was absolutely right. Dogtooth is not afraid to inflict pain on its viewers; in fact, it makes this spectator agony a central axis of the experience. It doesn’t let up, and the narrative itself doesn’t come to a conclusion at the end, so we are left with a phantom razor buried somewhere frightening even after the credits roll.
Some reviewers interpret Dogtooth as ridden with exaggerated representations, caricatures of objects we witness in our reality. This insistence on allegory is insufficient in describing Dogtooth; these critics create false parameters that restrict the impact of the film. It does much more than provide a didactic message about parenting—it explores fundamental characteristics of humanity. As the ideal work of art should, it penetrates so deeply into our perception of the human race that it begins to reveal the artificiality of all those entities—politics, society, family—that we forget are contrived in the first place.