Tooth Of The Matter
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Verve Pictures UK Blu Ray B
Dogtooth is a film which my tutor from my old Graphic Design Degree course, “back in the day”, has been recommending to me for a while now and I finally, courtesy of a cheap Blu Ray edition from Fopp Records, got to see this little masterpiece for myself.
There are some films which do a really good job of taking you into another world and painting that world with brush strokes so boldy that you find yourself totally immersed in it. Of course, all films do this to an extent but the world of Dogtooth is such that it is both an alien world full of its own dangers and challenges while, at the same time, being totally credible as something which could easily be happening right now at the periphery of our current society. It’s set in contemporary Greece but the world it sets out to define, and which gives the movie its shape, is the physical and psychological world created by an overzealously protective mother and father.
The film basically has three main protagonists, a brother and two sisters, who are all in their late teens, or possibly slightly past that, who have never set foot outside the walls of their fathers house and gardens. They know very little of the outside world and their knowledge of it derives from an almost fairytale world (if the reality of their situation wasn’t so frightening) of a dangerous land where the ground must not be walked on and where small cats roam the world looking to devour the flesh of children.
We are first introduced to the world these three inhabit... against their will if they were only familiar with the concept... by the latest tape of words their mother has given them to learn. Here we get our first glimpse of the idea that something really isn’t right because the words they are given are words associated with things they might pick up by accident should their existence be contaminated by “the land beyond”... but they are given completely false definitions and are contextualised for the “children” with sentences that use them in deliberately false ways. This is a theme which is a constant thread throughout the movie where we will see this “educational programme” used to both push the otherness and alienation of the main protagonists and also, on occasion... although it’s a pretty somber film... for comic effect. So when a specific word is used for, say, salt, we are grimly reminded of the draconian rule in which their father, the only household member to leave his compound, in his car, to go to his day job each day, has placed them. Similarly, when the son, who is cutting the lawn, tells his mum he’s just found two zombies, the comic tone of his finding two yellow flowers and using the hurried, cover up definition of the word his mother has given him in an earlier scene, is a constant reminder of the world in which he lives.
There’s stranger stuff far above and beyond this specific symptom of the world which the writers and director have conjured up for the audience but... I don’t want to spoil all this for you. You’ll want to slowly piece it all together for yourself.
Problems start to occur, however, when the security guard the father brings in for the son’s sexual needs every week, starts to unwittingly contaminate the attitudes and vocabularies of the son and his sisters. When the security guard gets no real pleasure from their encounters herself, she starts to bring in the concept of cunnilingus to one of the sisters and the influence of her inadvertent challenges to their world spreads like a virus. She is only in a few scenes dotted throughout the movie but her destructive and liberating influence on the household takes effect in a subversive but most brutal manner.
There are moments of cold violence which come out and manifest themselves in the movie at odd times and which serve as a testament to the fact that the world the parents have constructed for their children is far more terrible than anything their kids would have growing up in a normal environment and, as the film continues, we also realise that things are just not quite right with the father, who’s own brand of punishment and sense of justice is also both surprising and violent in nature. In one scene where he is punishing his daughter for watching a “contraband” video of Rocky IV (the only films that are supposed to exist for entertainment in the world the parents have created are home movies of their past), I was certainly hoping that only one take of the shot was needed to get it because, frankly, you shouldn’t be treating your actresses this way.
This was especially disconcerting to me, although the actress was probably okay with it, when it comes to the fact that the movie would not look out of place if the director was trying to adhere to Lars Von Trier’s Dogme brand of film making. There’s no music other than source music and it’s all shot in mostly static set ups, from what I remember, apart from when “the kids” are in their garden where the camera tends to get the handheld treatment as this is often where the conflicts of the film take place. The film looks like it’s been shot practically with no CGI effects (that I could detect)... relying on cutting from cause to effect scenes of violence or using props which will generate their own blood spray if required. This, of course, adds to the stark brutality of the film in that the kind of effects used, also limits the violence in the movie to being those where it will look less over the top in relation to what the characters are doing to each other... which just makes it more potent. I was kind of numb towards a lot of it, truth be told, because of the “stealth ninja” mode the director uses when it comes to the outbursts of violence and conflict in its placement in certain scenes. However, I imagine if you see a movie like this in a darkened theatre, it would be a pretty intense experience.
It pleased me immensely that, while I could kind of see that the dystopia/perceived utopia that was artifically constructed by the parents would have to have a downfall or, at the very least, have some large cracks appearing... the movie didn’t quite end in the way it could have done and the director leaves the nature of any sense of closure in the movie in the hands of the audience. It’s one of those films that gives you all the elements and pointers of where the story is going and then stops it dead just before those events reach a point of culmination. You know, right from the start, that the story of the five inhabitants of this house (six if you count the imaginary brother who lives on the other side of the fence) is not going to end well. Tell tale signs like the children having no idea of a sense of distance and perspective (if a plane falls in the garden, the first one to reach it can have it and put it in their toy collection), a grandfather who sings to them (a Frank Sinatra record) and a dance scene which is, frankly, an absolutely amazing thing to watch (the actress doing this must have felt really silly but it’s one of the most captivating scenes of its kind in modern cinema history, I’ll wager) all indicate a reality which the parents won’t be able to completely cover up for... like the mother does when, for instance, a word on the sleeve of a pornographic video she has carelessly left out is brought into question.
The performances by Hristos Passalis, Anna Kalaitzidou and Mary Tsoni, the main protagonists of the film, are all excellent and go beyond what you would expect from what an actor would have to try and characterise in his or her daily job. They are ably supported by Christos Stergioglou as the father and Michele Valley as the mother, with a beautiful, almost deadpan performance by Anna Kalaitzidou as Christina, the security guard/prostitute who unwittingly sows the seeds of rebellion in one of the children. If you haven’t seen Dogtooth and you are a fan of cinema in general, then you really don’t want to miss this one which is, frankly, a bit of a modern masterpiece and it’s certainly no wonder it’s won so many prizes for the cast and crew in so many festivals, including the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Definitely make yourself an opportunity to see this one. It’s what cinema is all about... transporting us to different worlds, even when that world is a hidden world variant of the one we already live in.