Once Is Enough

Family Home Evening: (from left to right) Christos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni in a scene from the film Dogtooth (2009)

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“There’s [insert allotted time span here] of my life I’ll never get back again.”

We’ve all heard someone rattle off this cliché in reference to a bad or disappointing experience. We’ve probably all said it. I find myself mumbling it, preemptively, whenever I walk into a movie theater or sit down with a DVD.

Do other artists–let’s clarify: other makers of static images–find themselves increasingly harboring a grudge against moving pictures and their bullying ubiquity? I do. A (semi-facetious) pox on the things!

Anyway, it’s rare that I leave a film feeling that I’ve spent the previous ninety minutes or so in a worthwhile pursuit. But that was the case, oddly enough, with Dogtooth, a 2009 Greek film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Winner of the Prix Un Certáin Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, Dogtooth is a cautionary fable about home schooling.

Make that a cautionary nightmare. Lanthimos’ film centers on a family–mom, dad, a son and two daughters–who live within a fenced-in compound from which only the father, a factory owner, leaves. Why the parents have chosen to raise their children in isolation is never elaborated upon, but the limitations of the decision are quickly apparent. Dysfunction is the rule, especially given parents who purposefully mislead their children in terms of vocabulary, telephones, sex, Frank Sinatra, house cats and, of course, life outside the gates.

The lone outsider allowed in the home is a female security guard who works at dad’s factory; she’s brought in, blind-folded, to sexually service the son. The family’s “idyllic” set-up begins to crumble when the eldest daughter–no one in the family seems to have a name–blackmails the security guard into handing over a pair of videos. (The only videos the family watches are home movies.) As events transpire, we’re able ascertain that one video is Rocky, the other Jaws.

Welcome to Planet Earth.

Dogtooth does what we ask of any work of art: It creates a consistent, convincing and compelling–in this case, perversely compelling–world in which we become engrossed. That’s not to say I recommend the movie. Like Irreversible, say, or Crumb, Dogtooth is an expertly realized and hugely unpleasant film, an experience from which we emerge, not refreshed necessarily, but rattled and feeling soiled. It won’t be to all tastes. Even those with a penchant for the outre are likely to be put off by the movie’s tone, at once harsh and numbing.

As no fan of the outre, I found Dogtooth an awful feat of the imagination, sometimes heavy-handed and impossibly absorbing. I’m glad I saw it. I never need see it again.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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