DOGTOOTH ("Kynodontas") Directed by: Giorgios Lanthimos Review by: Tristán Harvey E. White Rating: (0 to *****): **** (four stars)
Greek cinema has never really "made it" on the world stage. This is extraordinary, considering its geographical location: an EU country, on the Mediterranean, and surrounded by behemoths of the arthouse cinema: Turkey to the East, Italy to the West, with Romania not too far to the North. You would have thought that Greece would be churning out the movies, especially considering the successes of her bitter rival, Turkey. But in Greece there is no equivalent of a Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and hardly any films of note since their golden age of the 1950s, of which the most famous director, Mihalis Kakogiannis (Michael Cacoyannis), is actually from Cyprus. Greece has never won a "foreign language" Oscar before, and was in fact last nominated for one in 1977 with IPHIGENIA (losing, of course, to France's sickly sweet LA VIE DEVANT SOI (MADAME ROSA), which was always going to win, given its lead actress - Simone Signoret - and its somewhat nauseating and patronising storyline). Who directed Iphigenia? Ah, that damn Cypriot again, Cacoyannis. In spite of the fact that Melina Mercouri was the inspirational Minister for Culture from 1981 to 1989 and then again from 1993 to 1994, and did a lot to promote Greek cinema within her country, Greece have had not a single Oscar nod since that 1977 nomination although, to be brutally honest, Greece was robbed in 2005, as POLITIKI KOUZINA (A TOUCH OF SPICE) really deserved to be nominated that year. Not that it would have had a chance, sadly, since had it been nominated it would have been up against Germany's DER UNTERGANG (DOWNFALL) and the eventual winner, Spain's MAR ADENTRO (THE SEA INSIDE). We'll ignore the little fact that POLITIKI KOUZINA director, Tassos Boulmetis, was born in Turkey, shall we?... Why such a long-winded introduction to this review? Well, Greece have produced a film, at last, which may actually make more than a hundred bucks with change in cinemas outside Greece, and may actually be shown down your local cinema in Milton Keynes or Massachusetts. DOGTOOTH is really interesting, has been critically acclaimed at the London Film Festival (where I saw it at an almost packed cinema in Greenwich, near the Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory). It's dark, it's funny, it's intellectually stimulating, it has sex and violence, and has won so far Un Certain Regard at Cannes no less, as well as major prizes in Sarajevo and Sitges festivals. What a start!
Without giving too much away, DOGTOOTH tells the story of a family trapped by a megalomaniac father figure. There's a son, an older daughter and a younger daughter (we're never given any of their names). The kids have grown up completely isolated from the real world. They are terrified of leaving the house because their father has told them that if they do, man's worst enemy (cats) will kill them. Only he can leave the house, because he has lost his dogtooth (canine) and it has grown back again. Only then, according to his warped and terrifying 'version' of real life outside their garden walls, will the cats not kill humans. If there is any influence from outside (such as an aeroplane flying overhead) the father cunningly pretends they are models and occasionally pretends that they fall into the garden, so as not to confuse his naïve children about the outside world. Whenever they hear, somehow, a word about something from the outside world, Mamma (a willing participant in this exercise) and Pappa give them alternative meanings for the words. The "sea" is explained as being somewhere to sit, a "zombie" is a small yellow flower and a "keyboard" is another word for the vagina. Fish are mysteriously caught in the family swimming pool by hunter-gatherer Pappa.
In fact, there is no interaction with anyone from the outside world, except Christina (the only person whose name is given to us in the movie). Christina works as a security guard at Pappa's factory and, to supplement her income, she is brought (blindfolded) to the house to have sex, every now and then, with the son, who is now an adolescent and understandably has urges. When Christina gets bored of the tedious sex with the son and wishes to have an orgasm of her own, she involves one of the daughters, and this changes the whole dynamic within the house.
To say more would spoil the movie, although most of this does occur in the first act. Normally, the premise of DOGTOOTH would be too unbelievable for us to comprehend - it is occasionally even billed as a "fantasy" film. But thanks to the terrible news lately - Fritzl in Austria, Mongelli in Turin, not to mention equally despicable stories from the "Sheffield Fritzl" and, lest we forget, the whole bizarre story surrounding Jaycee Lee Dugard in the States - we can actually watch DOGTOOTH without it appearing as bizarre as it should. We have read so much about these awful stories that the DOGTOOTH family do not appear to be as unbelievable as they probably would have appeared to be had the movie been released just two years ago. Therefore, this movie has really grasped the zeitgeist.
To be honest, director Yorgos Lanthimos has been very lucky indeed. Or, indeed, very astute. The topic of this film is hot, it is graspable. It could do very, very well indeed on the world circuit. It already is doing really well, for a Greek movie at least.
The film somehow reminds me of a Dogme 95 film - the camera-work, the narrative structure - and in its candidness is occasionally reminiscent of Lars von Trier's IDIOTERNE (THE IDIOTS). In fact, I would bet that von Trier would very much approve and enjoy this film, and people who like von Trier's films will also very much enjoy it. Storywise, though, this film is fairly unique, though of course we have seen similar premises in M. Night Shyamalan's THE VILLAGE and Ripstein's EL CASTILLO DE LA PUREZA (CASTLE OF PURITY).
There are some moments which some audiences may find a little distasteful, a couple of very realistically filmed moments of violence, and some more prudish viewers may find the sex and nudity not to their taste. People who don't like loose ends and like to have every question answered for them will not like it either; I for one thought the ending was magisterial but it will not be to everybody's taste. But all in all, this should have been a shoe-in for Oscar nomination in the foreign film category. Particularly following its success in Cannes, many of the Academy members who whittle the sixty- seven films down to five nominees will have already seen Dogtooth at other festivals, so will be much more likely to nominate it than, for argument's sake, the latest Sinhalese road-movie from Sri Lanka.
In fact, I would have almost certainly bet money that DOGTOOTH would have been one of the five nominees (along with, perhaps, Haneke's DAS WEIßE BAND (THE WHITE RIBBON) from Germany, Audiard's UN PROPHÈTE (A PROPHET) from France, plus perhaps Xavier Dolan's J'AI TUÉ MA MÈRE (I KILLED MY MOTHER) from Canada; finally, surely one almost obligatory film from one of the "developing" countries. But I think DOGTOOTH would have been up there and, considering last year's unexpected win for Japan's OKURIBITO (DEPARTURES), which beat the likes of DER BAADER MEINHOF KOMPLEX from Germany, ENTRE LES MURS (THE CLASS) from France and WALTZ WITH BASHIR from Israel, anything could have happened. Websites tended to agree, with many tipping DOGTOOTH for Oscar success, including the In Contention site. It looked even more likely once New York based Kino Intl had secured it for US distribution.
But then, shock horror. The Greek Film authorities, in spite of officially choosing DOGTOOTH to represent their country at the Oscars, reversed their original decision and chose Nikos Sekeris's OI SKLAVOI STA DESMA TOUS (SLAVES IN THEIR BONDS), a movie which, to date, has not been distributed outside of Greece, and which didn't even win at Greece's own Thessaloniki Film Festival, the only festival of any note to which this film has so far been submitted (indeed, that honour went to the very short Iranian black and white film AAN JA).
I have not seen Sekeris's movie yet and international distribution companies are hardly scrambling over themselves to get their hands on it, so it may not be easy to get to see it here in London. Not that the story really appeals to me: a period drama about the bourgeoisie in Corfu in the early 20th century. It may be good. But I doubt whether it will be chosen by the Academy because I doubt that many of the voters will get much of a chance even to see this film. Whereas many of them would have already seen DOGTOOTH at Cannes and many other festivals around the world.
A lot of good films have been left out of contention. There was general surprise that Spain did not even have Almodóvar's ABRAZOS ROTOS (BROKEN EMBRACES) on their three-film shortlist, and Italy's decision to submit BAARIA, Giuseppe Tornatore's film in the Sicilian language, over VINCERE, Marco Bellocchio's critically acclaimed story about Mussolini's secret lover and their son Albino, caused some surprises among the Italian moviegoing cognoscenti. But, at least, Greece had shown some balls and had chosen DOGTOOTH. A week later, they changed their mind. This is almost worse than Almodóvar's snub; Yorgos Lanthimos must have felt very disappointed indeed and sadly Greece appears to have let slip their best chance of being nominated again for the first time since 1977. France's 34 nominations and 9 wins and Italy's 27 nominations and 10 wins are looking even more hazy for the Greeks.
All in all, DOGTOOTH is a great film, reminiscent of the Dogme 95 style (but not, I must stress, an actual Dogme 95 film). It's fun, it's ballsy, it's shocking, and some of the scenes will stay with you for a long, long time.
And, tragically, it will *not* be representing Greece at the Oscars on 7 March 2010.
Reviewer: Tristán White
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