No matter how happy your childhood, there will have been times when you chafed under your parents’ seemingly draconian regime. Teenage years provide an especially rich vein of angst as you defiantly grow patchwork beards or wears skirts that are too short. The batshit parents in Greek tragedy Dogtooth have devised a novel way to keep their now adult progeny in line: brainwashing.
Trapped inside their house by spurious tales of danger beyond the garden fence, the three willing inmates are not even allowed their own names and are known simply as Son (Hristos Passalis), Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), and Younger Daughter (Mary Tsoni). They lie on the grass and play games with plastic aeroplanes, behaving like children until their false utopia is breached by adult desires.
Their mollycoddled minds are a twisted amalgam of innocence and devious full-grown intelligence. The trio do not understand the dangers of violence, but are fully equipped to mete out lethal doses, putting every sibling scuffle on the precipice of disaster.
Evoking that sense of unrealised horror is what makes Dogtooth such a potent force. The characters themselves are ignorant to the regime of mental cruelty they endure, but the viewer is all too aware. Innocuous pieces of manipulation,such as being taught that the word for a saltshaker is “telephone” or that cats are dangerous monsters, might have raised a smile, were it not for the glaring backdrop of parental cruelty.
The film bills itself as a dark comedy but, for the most part. the humour is sparse and ineffective. Almost every lighthearted moment is drowned by an aching sadness. I encountered only one joke that managed to puncture the malaise. It caught me off guard enough to provoke a real belly laugh, but it was one of the few moments in which I felt comfortable enough to crack a smile.
Most films set out, at least in part, to entertain, but Dogtooth couldn’t care less about making you feel good. Far worse than any horror film disgust, it trades on the universal experience of childhood in deeply disturbing ways. The film collects up various shared memories of parental oppression and forms them into a twisted contrivance where the ‘heroes’ are blind to their suffering, sending our empathy into overdrive.
The addition of an outside influence threatens to challenge that ignorance. Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard at Father’s (Christos Stergioglou) workplace, is paid handsomely for catering to Son’s sexual desires. Her addition to the tightly controlled household sparks discoveries that threaten to unravel the parents’ carefully constructed universe. The eldest daughter has her eyes most widely opened, trading a stash of Hollywood movies for unsanctioned sexual encounters.
Dogtooth falls into that narrow category of films whose positive qualities make them very hard to recommend. It’s an effectively shot picture that brings to life an intelligent and provocative world through great acting and stellar writing. It may be a little light on narrative progression, but saves itself from total rigidity with a solid late flourish.
Dogtooth is a good film, but I never want to see it again. Staggering from my sofa as the TV faded to black, I felt like my brains had been disgorged by a maniacal professor and then trampled by elephants. I had to go outside for 10 minutes just to remind myself that I was still connected to the real world. The evening was a maelstrom of existential funkery, waiting for someone to come home and reassure me that my life wasn’t part of some sick social experiment.
If you don’t mind suffering for your art, then Dogtooth is a worthy, if taxing, experience. The intensity with which they commit to their horrible artifice is admirable, but erases any hope of enjoyment.
Do not choose this film to watch with your mum, on a first date, or when you’re not at your best. Dogtooth is a quality piece of cinema, but please: proceed with caution.
Dogtooth will be released on September 13 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.