Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Angeliki Papoulia, Christos Passalis, Mary Tsoni, Anna Kalaitzidou
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
Perhaps best known internationally as the director of cult hit The Lobster from 2015 (starring ‘big names’ such as Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz), Yorgos Lanthimos is becoming a recognised name as his newest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, looks set to bring him even more critical adulation outside of his native Greece, having taken the Best Screenplay award at Cannes.
But it’s Dogtooth, his second full length Greek film, which really announced his strange, idiosyncratic style; an interest in pitch black subject matter and the inherent absurdities and dark humour that can arise from Very Bad Things.
Dogtooth places us into a deeply dysfunctional family unit. The patriarch of the house (Stergioglou) is a quietly unnerving, pathologically controlling slimeball who, with the aid of his emotionally damaged wife (Valley), keeps their three young adult children (Papoulia, Passalis and Tsoni) in a state of perpetual infantilisation and dependence on each other. Their parents regularly feed them lies about the outside world to further ingrain the trio’s dependence on their – in their hopeless eyes – saintly parents (for example, cats are explained to the children as being ferocious, bloodthirsty creatures they should stay away from and guard their house against at all costs. The children are also told that a recording of Frank Sinatra is actually their grandfather singing to them about the importance of family).
The film is shot through with such instances of off-kilter, underplayed humour, occasionally almost nudging the viewer and daring them to see the funny side of what is, when considered soberly, a genuinely disturbing and horrific situation.
It’s the relationship between the children that provides the film’s core; specifically the slowly dawning rebelliousness of the eldest daughter (Papoulia) as she realises that Mum and Dad might not be so trustworthy after all. Rather than explaining how the family got to such a state, or exploring the motives behind the father in particular (the closest thing the film has to an antagonist), Dogtooth instead focuses mainly on the strange, needful bond between these obliviously abused young people, as they play, fight, curry favour with their parents and explore their sexuality.
Dogtooth is by no means a comfortable film to watch, but it is a surreal, darkly funny and casually shocking study of one fascinatingly f*cked up family.