Hollywood 2010-2019: Best Films of Past Decade: Dogtooth (Greek, 2010)–Lanthimos’ Dark Satire of Dysfunctional Family (Cannes Fest Winner)

Watching Together While Apart

Alone/Together in the Dark

I had an interesting argument a couple of weeks ago with a cherished colleague and friend, who’s also a critic.  He claimed, based on his common sense, that during the Coronovirus pandemic, viewers wish to see escapist entertainment, sort of fluffy undemanding fare, such as broad comedies, dazzling musicals, fast-paced actioners and adventures.

I have never fully subscribed to the escapist theory–in essence-, that in dreary times, audiences would opt for everything and anything that would let them forget for a few hours the surrounding grim reality.

When an international magazine asked for my choices of the great films of the past decade, I began to construct lists of films that have impressed me at their initial release, and have continued to linger in memory in terms of ideas, motifs, characters, images, and sounds.

For purposes of simplicity, my list 30 great movies of the past decade is presented alphabetically.  Obviously, the films reflect my taste as I look back and revisit them from a distance.  As such, they are inevitably singular and biased. No need to agree with my filmic hierarchy, but as a critic it’s my duty and privilege to expose readers to films they might not have seen upon initial release, or wish to revisit from a different viewpoint, and with the perspective of time.

All the films are available on DVD and/or via streaming.

Dogtooth (Greece, Lanthimos, 2010)

Lanthimous is best known for the 2018 historical satire, The Favourite, which was nominated for Best Picture Oscar and other categories, winning the Best Actress for Olivia Colman.

Essay written in 2010:

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who has made Dogtooth (“Kynodontas”), a shocking, darkly humorous expose of a dysfunctional family, is a major talent to watch.

Winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard category of the 2009 Cannes Film Fest, “Dogtooth” was released by Kino International, after receiving enthusiastic critical acclaim.

An arthouse director, Lanthimos is unknown in the U.S., though “Dogtooth” is not his directorial debut; he previously made “Kinetta,” which had also played the festival circuit.
Lanthimos’s unsettling tale centers on one nuclear family, composed of two parents, adult son and two adult daughters, all living in a fenced compound. The parents exercise rigorous discipline, rewarding good behavior with stickers, and bad behavior with escalating acts of violence.
The children, who have no knowledge of the outside world, are instructed by their old folks that they will be ready to leave the compound only after losing a dogtooth, and that the only safe way to leave is by car. It’s a lesson that one of the daughters absorbs all too well. 
Meanwhile, confined to an isolated country estate, the children entertain themselves with endurance games, such as keeping a finger in hot water. Their existence is regulated by firm norms, but it also tolerates devious sexual acts. politics.
Having invented a son whom they claim to have ostracized for his disobedience, the controlling parents terrorize their offsprings into complete submission.  The daughters relish throwing at him supplies and stones on the other side of the fence.
The father is the only family member who can leave the manicured lawns–he works as a manager at a nearby factory.
The twisted arrangements that define the status quo change, however, when the father hires Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard at his factory, to come to the house and have sex with the son.

However, the presence of an outsider soon leaves its impact on each member of the clan, and the previously prevailing mores begin to escalate rapidly. Frustrated by the son’s refusal to offer cunnilingus, Christina trades her headband with the elder daughter in exchange for oral pleasure. The elder daughter then convinces the younger one to lick her shoulder by bartering the headband. Later on, the younger daughter volunteers to lick again her elder. And when the elder has nothing to exchange anymore, the younger continues licking other body parts.

By standards of American films—even those made by Todd Solondz (“Happiness”)–Lanthimos’  children are bizarrely deviant, and at first, it’s hard to grasp what exactly is wrong with them.
Take, for example, their frightening stories about cats as violent man-eaters, or their vocabulary.  In their invented lingo, the word zombie denotes a yellow flower.
The trio spend their time listening to endless homemade tapes that teach them a new vocabulary. Any word that comes from beyond their family abode is instantly assigned a new meaning, which is why the word “sea” refers to large armchair.
The father visits a dog training facility and demands to have his dog returned. The trainer refuses, claiming that the dog has not finished its training. “Do you want an animal or a friend?” he asks?

When the children are terrified by a stray cat in the garden, the son kills it with pruning shears. Deciding to take advantage of the incident, the father shreds his clothes, covers himself in fake blood, and tells his children that their unseen brother was killed by a cat, the most dangerous creature.  After he teaches them to bark on all fours to fend off cats, the family holds a memorial service for the brother.

Christina again barters for oral sex from the elder daughter, but the latter rejects her offer of hair gel and demands the Hollywood film tapes in her bag. She watches the films in secret and afterwards recreates scenes and quotes their dialogue. When the father discovers the tapes, he beats her with one of them, then goes to Christina’s flat and hits her with her VCR, cursing her future children to be corrupted by “bad influences.”

A Kino International Release

The parents decide that, with Christina no longer available, they will have the son choose one of his sisters as a new sexual partner. After fondling both sisters with his eyes closed, he chooses the elder. She is uncomfortable during their sex and afterwards recites threatening dialogue from the Hollywood film to her brother.

During a dance performance for the parents’ wedding anniversary, the younger daughter stops to rest, but the elder continues and dances the choreography from the film Flashdance, disturbing her parents. That night, she knocks out one of her dogteeth with a dumbbell and hides in the boot of her father’s car. The father discovers her tooth fragments and searches for her fruitlessly. He drives to work the next day; the car sits outside the factory, unattended.

Dogtooth is Lanthimos’ second feature after a successful career directing TV commercials, music videos and stage productions.  Nonetheless, it already reveals a distinctive and quirky sensibility and an impressive command over film’s technical crafts.
Co-writing the script with Efthymis Filippou, Lanthimos alludes to other surreal, scary tales about children, who seems to inhabit a world that’s totally different from the one familiar to us.
Lanthimos has said in press interviews that his rehearsal process on Dogtooth was underway long before the news broke of the disturbed Austrian father, Josef Fritzl, who reportedly had held his children captive for 24 years in his basement.
Taking thematic and stylistic risks—and breaking significant taboos–Dogtoooth is an arthouse fare that challenges and provokes, while never neglecting humor and entertainment values.
Lanthimos said that he haf deliberately held an open approach to acting and visual style.  It wasn’t until the rehearsals started that he began to develop the specific desirable style, defined by him as “a combination of realistic environment with strict framing and cool surreal look to go with the narrative.”
About the Director
Yorgos Lanthimos was born in Athens in 1973 and studied film and television direction at Stavrakos Film School.  His career was launched in 1995, when he began making short films (including 2001’s Uranisco Disco), music videos and TV commercials.  His first feature film was the internationally-acclaimed Kinetta in 2005.

Credits:

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
Producer: Yorgos Tsourgiannis
Rating: Unrated; Greek-language, subtitles
Running time: 96 min

Cast

Christos Stergioglou as father
Michelle Valley as mother
Angeliki Papoulia as older daughter
Mary Tsoni as younger daughter
Christos Passalis as son
Anna Kalaitzidou as Christina