Wednesday, March 16, 2011
When a young child walks up to his parents, stares up at them with those wide, wondering eyes, and asks where puppies come from, I can only imagine the range of emotions felt by the parent. Tenderness? Amusement? Patience? But mostly, I just wonder why they don’t reply, “Your mom gives birth to them. She’s having a Sheltie and two Lhasa Apsos tomorrow.”
That’s basically the premise of Dogtooth at its most benign. But Giorgis Lanthimos’ ingenious film goes much, much further into darker, stranger, altogether funnier territory. The parents in the film don’t just tell a few minor fibs to their son and two daughters—they lock the children away from society and completely redefine reality, often on a whim. When the son asks his mother what a zombie is, she decides on the spot that it is a small yellow flower in the garden. The children are warned they cannot leave the house until their right (or left, it doesn’t matter) dogtooth falls out. And when you ask someone to hand you the phone, they pass you a saltshaker.
There is some purpose to these surrealist language games—or at least a pattern, given that the parents redefine any word that points to the world beyond the garden wall (sea, motorway, and excursion, for example). But there’s no explanation of why the parents are putting so much effort into hiding away their children. The father is the only one who ever leaves the compound—he works at an amusingly grey factory that seems to produce nothing—although he does bring home a young woman from time to time, who is paid to relieve the son’s sexual urges. Beyond that, there’s little sense of the larger world that produced this warped family, nor any real judgment of these bizarre rituals.
If anything, the film’s allegory is all the more unsettling for this lack of definition. Is this the story of the violence of patriarchy? The madness of totalitarianism? The malleability of reality? Yes, all these things and more! (What a bargain!) Given that everyone is reduced to mad barking by the end, you could just as easily say the film is about the Pavlovian conditioning necessary to sustain the family unit (and by extension, society).
What makes the whole thing work is that Lanthimos never comes right out and stamps a single interpretation on the proceedings. This wicked game he plays could be spun any number of ways, but he wisely steps back and allows the perverse logic of this world to take hold of the story. The results are quite remarkable—loopy moments of childish awe blend with sharp shocks of violence, and who knows if the next scene will produce a dry chuckle or stifled gasp. I doubt you’ll see a funnier scene this year than the son’s horrified discovery of an alien creature in the garden (that is to say, a snuggly little kitten). But then again, you probably also won’t find anything more upsetting than the moment he attacks the intruding monster with a pair of pruning shears. No one said allegory was a clean business.
I’ll avoid getting too deep into my own theories about the film, which will likely change with repeated viewings, personal moods, and the ever-shifting geopolitical tides. But there may be a clue in the film’s use of Rocky and Jaws, both of which find their way into the hands of the eldest daughter. This carefully monitored mental ecosystem only begins to fall apart after an injection of pure Hollywood miracle serum sends it into stupefied shock. Once she watches the contraband movies, the eldest daughter’s brain becomes thoroughly scrambled with visions of a world beyond her parents’ control, a world violent and terrifying and thrilling beyond all her experience. But there’s a fine line between escapism and escape, as the film’s double-edged ending suggests. Hollywood opens up her reality, teaches her a new language, shows her many wonderful things—except, apparently, how to be free.