'Dogtooth' immerses the viewer in a Greek family's strange rituals.

A Family Implodes in Biting 'Dogtooth'

Dennis Harvey September 3, 2010

Nothing seems to manifest more negative fascination in recent years for a vast swath of the American public than the specter of child abuse. Corporal, psychological, especially sexual. Is this a freshly alerted society’s heightened, apt watchfulness? Or expression of mass-distraction paranoia out of proportion to the actual real-world threat?


The issue gets variably treated in current cinema, ranging from such serious (if still morally debatable) arthouse takes as Michael Haneke’s ambiguous The White Ribbon and Todd Solondz’s grotesque Life During Wartime to discomfiting documentary exposes. Not to mention its now routine exploitation as a plot device in horror movies and thrillers.

From Greece—not a country too often represented at the local arthouse—comes Giorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year and opens this Friday on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki. No doubt that Cannes nod (the first of several festival laurels picked up) stirred some controversy, because this is the kind of unflinchingly provocative movie that dares you to be entertained, or appalled, or both.

It’s not about “child” abuse in the strict sense, as the victims here seem to be of age, probably somewhere between 18 and 25. But they are (mis)treated like children at some cruelly perverse orphanage beyond Dickens’ imagining—or like pets owned by sadistically clever children.

Not that the setting is squalid. At first glance, we seem to be in the same out-of-time, aristocratic bubble inhabited by characters in movies like The Garden of the Finzi-Continis or I Am Love. But the high walls around this elegant gate estate exist not so much to keep the ugly outside world at safe bay but to keep the residents unknowingly imprisoned. Unknowingly because they have been deliberately misled about everything beyond those walls and its purported dangers. If they had any idea what normal life was like, they might rebel—realizing that they’ve been raised as lab rats in a monstrous experiment of sorts.

The family (never identified by name) consists of middle-aged parents (Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley) and their three offspring, a son (Christos Passalis) and two younger sisters (Mary Tsoni, Aggeliki Papoulia). Only father ever leaves the grounds, to work at a factory he presumably owns. The only visitor ever brought here—blindfolded en route—is his employee Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), who performs a sexual function with clinical detachment.

Her role is part of the siblings’ never-ending “training,” which encompasses humiliation, incest, bizarre “tests,” labyrinthine senseless “rules” for behavior, severe punishments, and homeschooling that might have been invented by the surrealists. (For one thing, they’re deliberately taught completely wrong meanings for words.) If Father is the humorless driving force, Mother is no less a willing participant in this sick parody of parenting. Just what are their motivations? Lanthimos and his co-scenarist Efthimis Flippou ain’t telling—Dogtooth presents its escalating parade of horrors without judgment or explanation.

Which begs the question, what is the point of Dogtooth itself? Undeniably compelling, at times even funny in a macabre fashion, its precisely orchestrated banality-of-evil platter challenges the viewer to draw his or her own meaning from a curious narrative that moves casually yet inexorably toward the family’s violent implosion.

This puts it in good company with other recent films by the likes of Haneke, Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe that offer an excoriating view of man’s inhumanity to man, without the kind of improving moral commentary that lets us off the hook. Here, we’re simply witnesses to the crime, and our fascinated voyeurism is itself incriminating.