Sunday, January 30, 2011


Far and away the strangest Academy Award nomination of this year, possibly ever belongs to a Grecian oddity called Dogtooth, a nominee for best foreign language film.  It's a weird, disorienting, transfixing movie by turns unsettling and fascinating.  The film became internationally famous (perhaps infamous) win it won the Un Certain Regard award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.  Yet what's striking about Dogtooth is that the shocking moments of the film are as passively observed as anything else in the film; and that the moments that are calm are in retrospect even more blisteringly shocking.  When it comes to writing about a film like this, which is its center fairly amoral, and utterly up to interpretation from the eyes of it's beholder, one must fess up and ask: what the hell did I just watch.  In my eyes, it was either a masterpiece or an exercise in cinematic brutality.  To put it mildly, let's simply state that this is perhaps one guaranty of a foreign film likely never to be remade for American audiences.  But if it ever were, the high concept tag line would read:  "'The Village', as directed by Michael Haneke, from a script by David Lynch."

Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, with a script by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, Dogtooth centers around a well-to-do suburban family, but really it might as well be centered in space somewhere, since everything from the start is so alien and strange.  We meet three young siblings-- two girls and a boy-- all attractive and the first scene shows them in a bathroom with a tape recorder.  The recording is a vocabulary lesson, yet the familiar words on the tape are given different, arbitrary definitions, for example, the word "sea" is defined as a piece of furniture.  Suddenly we're thrust into a sheltered environment where everything is jumbled, mixed, and not what it seems.  Where a trio of home-schooled children are presented a life that resembles no one else whatsoever.  A fascinating and altogether sad treatise, but intriguing, and engrossing.  The film, to it's great credit, always seems to want the audience to know more.

As the film continues, in a tightly and brightly filmed hour-and-a-half, we see more of this most unusual family: mom, dad, and three kids-- neither of which are given actual names, referred to by pronouns, and learn more of the strange lives they lead.  The father brings home girls to sate the sexual desires of his son, the family is trained to fear cats, and a the titular "dogtooth" is a canine that comes out when a child is ready to leave the nest.  Most of the proceedings lead to a common reaction that the parents are sadists, but I suppose that would be too easy of a pronouncement for a film that's provocative in structure and plot, where there's moments of genuine familial love coupled with gruesome and unsettling imagery.  What separates the film from being a truly great piece of art, I think, is that it's merely a thesis, and there's no moment of catharsis.  It's difficult to have an emotional response to a film where none of the characters appear to have an emotion whatsoever.  But then again, it's a strange auteur film where everything appears designed from every gesture and shot, and the intentional appears filmed as desired, and there's something exhilarating about that as well.

The film path leads down to crazy corners just waiting to test it's audience-- incest, prostitution, startling random acts of violence, and a gruesome cat murder that is filmed with such detachment, I might jar even the bravest of filmgoers.  I recommend Dogtooth because moreso than The Social Network or Black Swan, it's the definitive conversation piece of 2010, love it or hate it, there's something at work here...something eerie and brave.  One thing that I feel should be undisputed, regardless of cinematic taste: the stellar, unsettling work of actress Aggelike Papoulia, who plays the eldest daughter with such a focused, go-for-broke stride, it's almost unbearable.  I want to see more from her.  B+

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