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February 20, 2011

A study in perverse family life disturbs but does it enlighten?

The movies have always been interested in exploring family life and this is even truer with television, but Oscar nominee Dogtooth takes that exploration several steps beyond the normal examination of familial foibles and everyday crises.

In Dogtooth, described as “darkly comic” in one mainstream review, there are few laughs and fewer insights being shared about how families function. In the Dogtooth family, it’s all dysfunction, malfunction and behavioural perversity.

If you are looking for comedy, this film won’t satisfy the usual cravings that are fulfilled with a weekly or daily viewing of Modern Family, Two and a Half Men, or even re-runs of Married with Children, although the latter two have their perverse side too. 

This will even shock those who liked the finally terminated TV sitcom Married with Children with its dominant father figure Al Bundy. The endlessly re-running All in the Family also comes to mind. But even those depictions of families of idiots with their domineering fathers had humorous moments. Not so Dogtooth.

I’m reminded of the wonderful study in film conducted years ago by the late Canadian director Allan King called A Married Life or one of those street-art installations where passers-by can view the mundane processes of a family living out their lives together.

But in Dogtooth we are not looking at normal family behaviour (whatever that is these days). Instead, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has chosen to examine what family life might become if the family were to begin to disappear as society’s primary institutional driving force. 

Briefly, the story revolves around a family of three young adult children who have been raised within a walled compound and home-schooled in the most bizarre way. They are taught the wrong words for various household items – a saltshaker is handed to a daughter when she asks for the phone, the son sees two small flowers and calls out to his mother to come and see the zombies.

The most bizarre behaviour involves psychological trickery, perverted acts of violence, and incest. All of this is a result of a domineering father who has clearly beaten the children and his submissive wife into accepting their imprisonment. The children are also taught that cats are evil killers, that airplanes are small toys that will fall out of the sky, and that their mother can give birth to dogs. 

A warning: there are some physically jarring scenes. I jumped out of my seat on two occasions. There are also some upsetting concepts at work here. The father is a tyrant who has destroyed his children. The mother has accepted his tyranny and supported it.

There are parallels here to the devout acceptance of patriarchal authority seen in religious colonies. Feminists will not get through this movie without wanting to throw things at the screen.

When the credits finally rolled, I struggled to find anything of redeeming value. Then, with several conversations of the “What the hell was that all about?” variety, I concluded that Lanthimos had accomplished what all socially conscious directors strive for: he made me think about key social issues in a different, albeit disturbing way.

Dogtooth didn’t make me laugh; it made me shudder at the prospect being explored. It also reminded me of the most important purpose that film serves – forcing humans to move towards a new awareness of how they live together.

I doubt it will win the Oscar for best foreign film given that the celebrated Mexican production Biutiful is the front-runner. If there were a category for best sociopathic study, Dogtooth’s director would most definitely carry home the shiny metal statue at Feb. 27, 2011, Academy Awards.

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