Saturday, January 29, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#28) DOGTOOTH

(I was originally going to go out of my way to see this at a midnight screening in Manhattan, currently on the buzz of an Oscar nomination as the official entry from Greece, and that it's supposedly bugfuck insane... but then I realized, hey, why spend the $13 to sit in a small room - and I checked as it was playing in one of the tiny, smaller-than-my-living-room sized theaters at the IFC Center - and decided to save it for its availability on Netflix Instant allowed me to kill two birds with one stone.  Speaking of kill...)

Often during the running time of Dogtooth, the latest film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (say that 5X fast), I had a recurring thought: "What is this shit?"  I mean that as a compliment, I guess, as the film is never less than beautifully shot and composed.  Every shot, every iota of screen time, appears to be carefully planned out, possibly storyboarded or shot-listed to Hades, and whether it's a still-static shot or a very intense hand-held camera, Lanthimos certainly doesn't ever not know what he's doing when it comes to cinematographic technique and creating an original narrative with the editing.

But what I mean is... huh?  This is a film that boggles my mind and will continue to.  It's something that is why critics were invented, so that when something like Dogtooth ends one can rush to a review, or ten or twenty or all of them, to make heads or tails about this (Ebert might have the most spot on one, "like a car crash, you can't look away").  In the short of it it tells the story of a family, a dysfunctional family.  No, make that, the most fucked-up family this side of the Mansons, the Leatherface Clan, and that group of 'normal' lookin' folk that you see around the supermarket every now and again.  In a sense this family, whatever they're names are, are quite free.  That is, within the set rules that the Father of the household has set up.  Which are... a lot, apparently.

Song playing: "I had the Time of My Life"
It took some time to figure what was going on here, but once it clicked it worked: Dogtooth is, from an estimation (if not the definite one), a super-black satire on religion, or home-schooling or indoctrination to a super-maximum level.  The Father of the household (Christos Stergioglu) has set up, since the children were born, a completely enclosed system, of how to live and how to receive information, how to eat, how to wear clothes, how to breathe practically.  And most important of all, this includes language: words don't have the same meanings in this household that they would outside, so for example a keyboard is a vagina, a 'pussy' is a bright light, a zombie is a... hell, I dunno, a bug I guess.

The thinking being, and this is not really far out if one is a human programmer, that if you control language, everything else can follow from there.  And most of these words are dictated from a tape recorder that sounds like outtakes from a Jean-Luc Godard film on warbled semantics (come to think of it, this kind of reminds me in some ways, the content not the style, of his film Number Two, which also dealt with a perpetually fucked-up family that indulges in strange behavior and sex).

Oh yes, that's another thing to know before going into this.  There is sex, lots of it, the graphic kind (such as, most often, not-fake-for-the-cameras), and, indeed in this context, incestuous.  Only one other film I can think back to could compare with the daring on display, which is Takashi Miike's gonzo-trip Visitor Q.  But that film at least carried a sense of truly outrageous comedy.  There is some comedy when it comes to the vignettes with these characters, but it's the kind of comedy where I don't laugh so much as I scream-laugh ala Joker inside and try to reach for the closest teddy bear to snuggle with for protection as my eyebrows do the hustle.  It's a 'dry', affected way the mostly young actors speak, which is accurate for these characters who, perhaps the Father included, have been indoctrinated from the womb to follow all of the rules, all of the sayings, the customs, and of course to never leave.  And when those rules are broken, all bets are off.

Their version of 'Marco-Polo'
This is actually a good thing in a sense.  For one, Lanthimos doesn't make what happens with these sexual and just bizarre physical encounters (i.e. licking limbs and ears) into something exploitative.  On the contrary, it's meant to be so matter-of-fact, so businesslike, that it's where the dead-black comic humor comes from, how drained everything is (which, arguably, could also be just as exploitative in a roundabout way, but I won't go there for now).  I could pull out of my critic-knowledge-hat various possible influences- Haneke, Pasolini's Salo (or Teorema, ugh), or Harmony Korine's cine-entrails- and they might all apply with their uncompromising styles and attitudes towards the potential for human conditioning.  But there isn't any other movie quite like it despite the comparisons.  It's got characters we're not meant to "like" or "identify" with exactly, except perhaps on the point of "Oh my dear Pete, what the hell is going to happen to them next?"

A part of me fretted at this.  Dogtooth, with its precisely emotionless performance, random dance sequences (the one you might have seen from the trailer is the funniest "LOL" scene at a party in the house), and how absolutely cruel everyone is to one another, is cold in a way that, at times, made me feel very cold off of these characters and their insulated world.  I kept thinking 'Why does this exist? Why is this even here?  What the fuck is this director telling us?'  And then, ultimately, another part of me though 'hey, why not?'  It doesn't take its situations or violence or abuse lightly, and that is what sticks ultimately.  This doesn't mix exploitation and "art-house" experimentation like Miike did with his classic in Gonzo-family theater.  We're made to look straight on on these characters, trapped and transformed, yet within their own sphere with a kind of freedom that comes with being completely suppressed, if that makes sense.

To put it another way, Dogtooth is one of the most ugly-fascinating glimpses into the human potential for hell.  It doesn't make for a "fun" night of viewing, but it's masterfully shot, executed without a hitch, and hits a nerve.  I wouldn't want to revisit it any time too soon; like Salo it strikes up controversy by the nature of its poker faced attitude towards mayhem.  But for those about to be adventurous in film, this salutes you.

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