*. Yorgos Lanthimos is a crossover art-film director, making movies that, while weird or surreal or abstract or in some other way experimental, are also tethered to reality and have stories you can follow. The lonelyhearts hotel in The Lobster, for example, is a strange place, but we can recognize the types who find themselves there and we root for the love story between David and the Short Sighted Woman.
*. In a similar way, Dogtooth is a story that not only seems torn from the headlines but it’s one that has gone on to be featured in a number of mainstream thrillers. I call these the bunker horrors, and they include movies like Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, It Comes by Night, and A Quiet Place. The inspiration for this slew of films may have been the Josef Fritzl case, but despite the clear similarities Dogtooth was already in rehearsal before that story broke and Lanthimos says he was unaware of it. Still, the point remains that, while it’s a strange premise, it’s not that far removed from reality. And of course one can think of other movie analogs in play from The Collector to The Village.
*. I’ve remarked in my notes on other bunker horror movies that they feed into an anxiety over how to protect one’s family when the whole world has gone to hell. Dogtooth is a little different, or more in line with Room, in making the bunker a prison kept by an insanely isolationist warden. But his motivation, however twisted, is much the same. My point is just that this isn’t a totally off-the-wall exercise in surrealism. In so far as Dogtooth had a real-life inspiration it was in Lanthimos’s observation on the weirdness of family life in general.
*. Indeed, families aren’t just weird. They constitute their own separate reality. This is true even for those that don’t live in a bunker. Dogtooth underlines this by having the children here being taught a different language and having to follow a bunch of other bizarre customs. It’s all undeniably weird, but I think we’ve all visited homes where the families seem to partially speak a language unique to themselves, and that operate by a set of personal rules that make no sense to outsiders.
*. That much of Dogtooth I can appreciate. And I also like its visual inventiveness and pacing, punctuated as it is with shocking moments. Not all of this, however, do I understand. Take, for example, Lanthimos’s habit of cutting off people’s heads. I don’t mean literally but in terms of his compositions. In an interview he refers to the “really strict framing” he used in shooting the film, but why should that so strictly cut actors off at their shoulders? I can’t think of any good reason. I’m inclined to think it’s connected to his being against actors acting, and his depersonalization of character (which we see expressed in the robotic way he insists lines be delivered, and his use of clothes as uniforms). Then again maybe it has something to do with the blindness motif. I don’t know.
*. There’s a coldness in all this, but then the art house is a cold environment. Also typical of that environment is the fact that Dogtooth lets you read a lot into it. Lanthimos does enjoy his ambiguous open endings, but I wonder how much of that is for a purpose and how much because he just can’t figure out where he wants to go next. The basic point here that the father can only keep a lid on burgeoning teenage sexuality so long before it erupts in violence seems pretty simple to me. Will the younger daughter escape? Or does escape in this context only mean trading in one prison for another that may be even worse (the trunk of the car, or that penitentiary-like work place the father is employed at)? I’ll admit I’m not optimistic.