REVIEW: Κυνόδοντας [Dogtooth] [2009]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: November 11th, 2009 (Greece)
Studio: Feelgood Entertainment / Kino International
Director(s): Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer(s): Efthymis Filippou & Yorgos Lanthimos

“Soon your mother will give birth to two children and a dog”

Sometimes a film comes along that disarms you by its originality while completely disturbing you to the point where watching again may be too much to handle. The Greek Κυνόδοντας [Dogtooth] is just such a work. Co-writers Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos—who also directs—take us into the isolated world of a nameless family forsaking society for its own experimental existence. Beginning with a look at the three children living inside a fenced in estate whose borders hold dangers they are unable to handle until one of their dogteeth falls out, we listen as they play a recorded vocabulary tape explaining the definition of “sea”, “highway”, “roadtrip”, and “shotgun”. Assigned definitions of chair, strong wind, durable material, and beautiful white bird respectively, we as an audience are automatically disoriented, unsure if we have found ourselves spying onto a parallel universe, a foreign planet, or a sector of conditioned insanity.

This is a scarier version of Shyamalan’s The Village, that work’s romanticized fantasy stripped down to an upbringing based on fear, abuse, and a way of programming that excises any form of sex and violence. It’s an attempt by Christos Stergioglou’s Father and Michele Valley’s Mother to raise their children away from the sort of markers people love to associate with criminal activity or promiscuously sinful lifestyles. All measures have been taken to keep what are now late-teenage and perhaps early-twentysomething kids uninterested in the outside. A fictitious brother is manifested as an exile over the fence—a warning to behave or be ostracized from the family; the threat of new siblings keeps them on their best behavior less they harbor resentment towards sharing a room or love; video night consists of home movies; dangerous words such as phone are carefully reassigned new meanings (table salt) to subdue any suspicions; and the boy’s sexual urges are quenched by a hired visitor, brought home blindfolded, to satisfy.

The fact that this manufactured world crumbles becomes fascinating not solely by this documentation of its chaotic descent, but also by the fact it hadn’t occurred sooner. Sibling rivalry makes way into an aggressive competition that can no longer be rectified with sticker rewards. Objects such as toy planes—thrown from the bushes to act as fallen machines from the sky, turning a vehicle for escape into an innocuous game—are fought for and sharp staccato spurts of violence enter the fray. Blood is spilled since the consequences of pain and injury have no place in the ‘utopia’ created and hormones rage as sexual pleasure is introduced into the dynamic. The lone outsider, Anna Kalaitzidou’s Christina, a security guard at the factory run by Father—the only one allowed outside the fence—finds her own desires in need of fulfilling, soon turning from the Son (Hristos Passalis) to the Eldest Daughter (Angeliki Papoulia), a naïve girl she can trick into some not-so-harmless licking in exchange for gifts. Pandora’s Box is opened and the parents attempt to right the ship, but it has gone beyond their control.

How long did they think they could keep up their lies without the simple act of lying trickling down? A cat finds its way into the yard and becomes a fearsome monster that feeds on the flesh of children. This sudden discovery of a predator doesn’t breed fear, however, it gives the Youngest Daughter (Mary Tsoni) a patsy to blame for her own enjoyment of pain. Jealousy runs rampant within the estate as Son’s superior physicality wins him most ‘games’, causing dissention among the girls, both of whom decide to take action through abuse. With emotion repressed through years of training, these automatons are remorseless, manufactured sociopaths rather than highly functioning creatures of reason. The simple act of separating their children from horror actually exacerbates the situation, removing any example of compassionate recourse to look back upon. Thus, when evil enters the equation, there is no stopping it from taking over, the appeal of the ‘outside’ becoming stronger than assimilation and obedience. A dog trainer may be able to choose how a dog should act, but humans decide those things for themselves.

Amidst the unfiltered look into the natural process of sex and the uncomfortable moments of uncontrolled rage resulting in senseless acts of brutality on behalf of the children for release and the parents for punishment, there are moments that will stick with me for a while. It is this aspect that makes Dogtooth a work of art worthy of not only acknowledgment, but also praise—Lanthimos’s vision is a frightening psychological experiment of what society can breed. Instances such as the Youngest learning actions from her siblings without meaning, using licking as a means for reward but not comprehending the sexual impetus that began its use; a grown boy’s fearful retreat from a harmless feline intruder showing the power of the unknown and its hold on the uneducated kept in the dark; or the joyful smiles on the faces of kids listening to Frank Sinatra, told it’s their grandfather and having the words translated into a story of familial love, all show the ease with which guardians can deceive.

We are only as good as those who bring us up, conditioned at a young age to see the world with eyes cultivated from a known truth that may not in fact be true. Whether it’s done from love or not is inconsequential—the horrific use of incest as a hopeful deterrent to devilish urges a prime example of ‘love’s’ misuse. This is an unforgettable, uncompromising look at repression and the consequences of an extreme overhaul of society to remove the markers we love to blame all the ills of the world on. Maybe we aren’t all good and therefore corruptible, perhaps we begin evil and it’s up to those raising us to explain the horrors of humanity in a way we can comprehend and cope with. At least with an exposure to sex and violence we can put a face to them. Both will occur whether we like it or not and they are too strong to ignore, making us slaves to their allure as we yearn for more.

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