Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth is sort of like The Virgin Suicides—if the parents were out-and-out psychopaths instead of just mildly weird religious nutjobs. Three grown children—two girls and a boy—are locked in a semi-rural compound by their controlling father and equally crazy mother. The house becomes something of a cult headquarters: the kids are told stories of an older brother who walked out the front gate (outside the boundary line) and never came back. Blindfolded, they play a twisted version of Marco Polo, huff chloroform as a perverse pastime, and are given stickers as prizes for weird little competitions their parents dream up. (The one with the most stickers gets to choose which home video to watch that night; video is used as a tool of coercion and control, and is ultimately exercised as a blunt physical manifestation of authority.)
They’re taught the meaning of words through tape-recorded language lessons made by their mother: the sea becomes “an armchair”; a “motorway” is a very strong wind. They’re terrified of the household cat—he becomes a threat to be eliminated by any means necessary, which in this case means (an offscreen) death by garden shears—and think that when a plane flies overhead it might land in the garden (because little plastic toy planes, which they race to collect, frequently pop out of nowhere). Once a fortnight, the father brings home the security guard from his work so that the son can exercise his natural urges; when this strategy eventually fails to take, each of them turns to the sisters. (Yes, there’s incest.)
The film is formally masterful: Lanthimos chops off more heads here (via framing) than your average zombie movie, and the editing and sound design are equally spectacular. The connections with Sofia Coppola’s film are more than narrative, they’re atmospheric: the mother in this family cuts off all communication with the outside world by keeping the family’s old rotary phone (there’s no direct sense of when the film is set) under lock and key in the cupboard of her bedside table. The green haze that descends over the Lisbon sisters’ leafy neighbourhood is ever-present in this film’s color timing.
Programmed in the 2009 nziff, but outside the Incredibly Strange section and with its potentially disturbing content unadvertised, the film caused walk-outs en masse—which just serves to prove its status as a challenging, wholly unconventional art film.
Dogtooth is now out on DVD through Madman.
Special features include deleted scenes and the film’s theatrical trailer.