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A&E Blog

You Missed It: DOGTOOTH

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2011-04-12 - You Missed It is a regular weekly feature that will spotlight a film recently released on DVD that never received a theatrical release in Utah.

There are any number of reasons why a given film might not make its way to a smaller market like Utah, and thereby potentially earn a spot in this feature. The presumed demographic audience may not be represented here in sufficient quantity to seem like a wise economic bet, or perhaps it was critically and financially unsuccessful during its big-city launch. In the case of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth--a 2010 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature, and a fixture on multiple year-end top-10 lists--it seems somewhat obvious why Utah might not be considered the most likely audience: It may be the most savage satirical attack on home-schooling ever made.

That's not explicitly the context here, but it's easy enough to make that conceptual leap. At the outset, we see three unnamed young adults listening to a recording that appears to be a vocabulary lesson defining new words: "sea," "motorway," "excursion." But the definitions are absurd: "sea" is "a leather armchair with wooden arms;" "motorway" is "a very strong wind." Something is more than slightly strange in this household where a trio of siblings find entertainment in seeing which one can hold their finger under a stream of scalding water the longest.

What Lanthimos gradually introduces is the notion that these three people have been raised in complete isolation on a remote estate by their father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michele Valley). The phone is hidden from view only to be used by the mother; the TV is only for showing family home movies so regularly viewed that the children can mouth the words. They have manufactured a mythology designed to insure their children will never leave, complete with a description of strange threats outside their walls. And if the outside world can never intrude, the parents can define a reality in any way they choose in the name of keeping them safe.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's not unlike the premise for M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. But Lanthimos has a far more wicked sense of humor as he explores both how the parents explain unusual events (planes flying overhead occasionally "fall down" as toys tossed into the yard by the mother, to become precious prizes) and what happens when an outsider--the woman brought in by the father to service his son sexually--introduces strange new ideas. He's never explicit about what motivates the parents to these extreme lengths, but it's not particularly relevant. It's all about a desperate, sometimes even violent attempt to maintain control.

Violence occurs more than occasionally throughout Dogtooth, and it's for more than mere shock value. As we see the parents' manipulations drift into extremely uncomfortable areas, the film becomes an object lesson in the idea that parents are not isolated from the maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The vacuum of this family's existence provides no natural checks and balances for the inevitable extremes of human behavior, nor does it account for helping they children prepare for the things their parents unintentionally or intentionally never addressed. When these now grown but infantilized "children" yearn for freedom, that desire is bound to manifest itself in fairly unhealthy ways.

It's easy for parents to justify all the things they do to "protect" their kids, but Lanthimos is both funny and starkly unforgiving in attacking the notion that bubble-wrapping them from the world ultimately does any good at all. To all the people who demand that we "think of the children," Dogtooth provides a fascinating portrait of how easy it is to forget that eventually, they won't be children any more.

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