Friday, February 25, 2011

Spotlight: Dogtooth / Kynodontas

This entry is inspired in part by the Filmspotting podcast and its “Golden Brick Award” for the one film that its listeners most appreciated that the podcast brought to their attention in the past year.  The award was inspired by the 2005 film Brick, and the grateful response that the film received from the Filmspotting audience.  Brick also happens to be available on View Instantly, as is the 2009 Golden Brick Award winner, MoonDogtooth won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and it is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.

I first saw the film back in September, and it made for a memorable screening experience; my friends and colleagues who saw it with me were grateful for the opportunity to see it.  I hope to use this Spotlight section for films that people haven't heard about to create similar screening experiences, but at first I thought that maybe enough people already know about Dogtooth thanks to the Oscar nomination.  But listening to the Filmspotting podcast today changed my mind, because even at this point people are saying that they wouldn't have known about the film if someone hadn't brought it to their attention. The Filmspotting audience’s response to Dogtooth is understandable.  The film seems to come out of nowhere and very quickly creates a vivid, surreal world with the threat of violence always just beneath the surface.  In that sense, it would probably be best to stop reading now and just trust me and watch it.  But I'm always a bit cautious about recommending black comedies.  As you can see from the DVD cover, the word "hilarious" is featured prominently; while there are many laugh-out-loud moments in the film, the tone is far from happy-go-lucky.  One of the Filmspotting audience members actually asked why he had to watch 90 minutes of torture, to give you a sense of how some might respond.

Here is the brief synopsis from Netflix: In this Oscar-nominated Greek drama, siblings who grow up cut off from the world -- homeschooled and reliant on one another for entertainment -- create their own idyllic alternative universe, which is shattered when their father lets in an outsider. Sex enters the picture when dad begins bringing home a female security officer to satisfy his son's libido ... and suddenly nothing is the same within the highly idiosyncratic family unit. Netflix link.

The film starts with the now grown siblings listening to a tape recording of a woman reading false definitions of words, showing the consequences of their unconventional home schooling, followed by one of them proposing rules to a new game that she has invented, showing their relatively immature status.  This, in turn, is followed by the blindfolded female security officer being driven to an undisclosed location, which we eventually learn is the estate where the siblings have been isolated their entire life.  Thus, within the first five minutes we understand that we will be spending time with a very dysfunctional  family that has created a very unusual environment that the grown siblings cannot leave.

While the rules dominating the siblings' lives are in the end terrifying when you think about them, the humor of the film derives from our gradual understanding of those rules and watching their logical consequences play out.  Since the siblings can never leave the estate, their sense of perspective and scale is skewed by the distances visibly available to them within the gates.  As a consequence, they have difficulty understanding the difference in scale between an airplane in the sky and a toy airplane on the ground, which leads to a few comic moments.  And since their home-schooling has essentially terrified the siblings about anything that exists outside of the estate gates, there is always an ironic gap between how we watch the scene and how the siblings understand what they see and hear.  This is especially effective in the later half of the film after the siblings are exposed to popular cinema via some smuggled videotapes; we have to use our pop culture knowledge to identify and translate what dialogue they are citing and famous scenes they are referencing in their behavior.

But just as this skewed world view is presented in a matter-of-fact manner, the violence that emerges is all the more shocking because it is presented as a natural extension of this world.  A cold, detached tone is achieved through off-balance compositions, long shot scales and occasional planimetric staging (for a great description of the use of planimetric compositions in a wide range of films, see here).  Rather than telegraphing the violence through shot selection, cross cutting, and music, some horrific moments simply emerge within the shot as characters inflict violence on each other and on themselves within a static composition; sometimes it takes a moment to realize the degree of the violence that has occurred.  Perhaps those who are most disturbed by these images are more used to having their attention and emotions guided more overtly by popular film language and music cues.

Some have criticized the film for being shocking just for the sake of being shocking, and not having any real point to make about these parents and these siblings.  But I think it is a reminder that any family environment has both positive and negative consequences.  As demented as these parents seem to be, they do what they do because they love their children and they want to protect them; they just make some horrifying decisions in their efforts to do so. To a far less extreme degree, can't that be said about many family units?  Okay, maybe in addition to love this is also about love of power...but isn't that also found in other families (big and small)?  The film works best when it pushes the logic of "family values" ad absurdum (and I don't mean that the film comments on the American politicized use of that term, I mean family values more generally).  The problem is that the siblings have accepted their parents values at face value without questioning them, and they don't have the means to explore anything outside of that system.  I hope I don't need to list the many current global situations (including some close to home) where people are in danger of being trapped in an analogous situation.    

I look forward to your responses and comments.  --JLK

Update 3/14/11: Dogtooth is also available at Fandor.

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