Wednesday, 11 November 2009
LEEDS FILM FEST REVIEW: Dogtooth
Wow. How do I begin describing this film? I have never seen a film like this before. After it finished the only things I could think to compare it to was The Cement Garden, with traces of A Clockwork Orange (in terms of style, anyway). A lot of people have mentioned the Fritzl case, but I don’t think it’s as deliberately cruel as that*. It’s a case of discipline and conditioning gone horribly wrong; how misguided intentions to protect a family can lead to violence, depravity and savagery.
Dogtooth is about a father who strives to protect his family from the outside world/strangers in society by feeding them lies, changing their language and perceptions, and conditioning them to believe amongst other things: they must not leave the perimeter of the house, cats are a dangerous predatory enemy, salt is the phone and a zombie is a yellow flower, planes are the size of your hand and often fall from the sky, and most decisively, that they cannot move away from home until their ‘dogtooth’ falls out. The dogtooth is actually an upper incisor tooth, and of course, it’s not supposed to come out, and it never will. The children unquestionably believe everything they are told.
Their inability to properly communicate and to learn the dynamics of a ‘standard’ family leads to bizarre, erratic and feral behaviour. One of the first shots of the film is the youngest daughter (they don’t have names, they are now aware of names) snipping off her barbie doll’s feet, hands and face and screaming in a high pitched tone for the doll as she does so. There are many unsettling and odd scenes like this, glimpses into their world where they undergo strange tasks (such as being blindfolded and having to find their mother) in order to earn ‘reward stickers’. But when not being given tasks their boredom manifests into dangerous games – burning themselves, holding their heads under water and testing new anaesthetics on each other (“whoever wakes up first will be the winner.”). It’s perhaps only natural then that when they get into fights with each other they lash out in extreme ways using knives and hammers (cat lovers should avoid this film like a hot poker).
And yet there’s a strange beauty to all of this – watching how they conduct themselves in their daily lives is akin to observing an alien species: it is impossible to look away, and not to become invested and fascinated in their peculiar, unhinged lives.
What the director fails to tell us – and he doesn’t tell us much, granted – is whether the rest of society is the same as this demented family unit or whether the father has chosen to make his family this way and isolate them. What is intriguing is the character of Christina, who is a regular visitor to the family, brought in by the father (blindfolded) to have sex with the son. She does not seem suspicious or repulsed by the family’s situation and she comes across as a contained, almost sad character, like the children. It’s therefore possible that she could have been brought up in a similar fashion, but we are never explicitly told this. But the character of Christina is integral because she is the catalyst for a destructive set of events.
She begins exploiting the eldest daughter, who in return develops a curiosity about the outsider and the gifts she brings her every week. Watching her first ever DVD has an effect upon her so horrific it won’t fail to leave you reeling. And THAT ENDING! One of the best and most charged endings I have ever seen on film, and there is no other way it could have ended.
You will not see a more powerful, cruel, brutally astonishing film for perhaps the next 10, 15 years, so if you get the chance to see Dogtooth I urge you strongly, intensely, to do so. It is a rarity in cinema: bold, shocking and designed to leave you talking about what you just saw for ages and ages afterward. But definitely not for the mainstream, easily disturbed crowds!
*although there are allegations made by some that Josef Fritzl is mentally ill and didn’t realise he was doing anything wrong.