I promised myself I would never watch another film like Funny Games.
After all, when full time film critics who have seen just about everything that could be considered cinematically shocking find a film like Funny Games “disturbing” I should take their word for it. I watched it, anyway and several years later Michael Haneke’s (2007 English language version of his own 1997 European original) film continues to leave a bad taste in my mind.
Still, I gotta admit I was curious about the buzz surrounding the Greek film Dogtooth (a prize winner at Cannes Film Festival and, later, an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.)
On the surface, a picturesque modern home with a large garden and swimming pool would seem like an innocuous place for a controversial film.
It is what goes on in this setting that may make you lose your appetite. From the opening scenes I knew that something was off as a vintage portable tape recorder started pronouncing words and then giving the wrong definitions for them. (For example, according to the voice on the tape recorder, “sea” means armchair.)
I later learn the children in the family – two teenage daughters and a son – have never watched a television program or seen a movie. They rely on their parents for everything. including information on the outside world. They have never been outside the yard. They do not even have individual names.
The father (Christos Stergioglou) works at a factory. He is the only one in the family who ventures into the outside world. Mom (Michelle Valley) seems happy to stay at home and look after the kids.
The only non-family member allowed into this insular world is a security guard named Christina who works at the factory. Dad brings her home, blindfolded (she doesn’t know the location of the house) to satisfy his son’s hormonal urges. It’s a duty she performs with all the grim urgency of a patient undergoing a root canal operation. Unwittingly, she turns out to be the snake in this Garden of Eden. The parents’ carefully ordered paradise slowly begins to unravel with unexpected results.
Considering the film made a paltry $384,147 at the worldwide box office (according to boxofficemojo.com) there are a lot of people talking about it. There were 180 reviews on imdb.com alone, including the late great Roger Ebert, who wrote, in a 2012 review, “The sickness of this family surpasses all understanding … some have even described the film as a comedy. I wasn’t laughing … “
A number of critics invoked the catch-all abbreviation WTF (or the full length phrase represented by the initials) in describing the bizarre proceedings depicted on screen. (Ken Eisner, Georgia Straight : ” By the time his wife and kids drop to all fours and start barking like dogs, it may prove one WTF moment too many.”)
My favorite is the U.K. newspaper The Independent which claimed Greek director Yorgas Lanthimos had actually “out-weirded” American film-maker Todd Solondz , up until then the unchallenged auteur of wayward family dynamics, thanks to films like Happiness and Life During Wartime.
My take on the film’s message: no matter what measures one adopts to try to protect one’s offspring, somehow, and in some way, the hazards and temptations of the outside world will seep in and affect them for better or worse.
I gotta say I admired the fearless discipline and conviction of the cast in following director and co-writer Lanthimos’ dark and singular vision to the bitter end.
I didn’t find this film as ruthless or as pitiless as Funny Games. Still, I can’t exactly recommend it, either. Like Mr. Ebert, I wasn’t exactly doubled over with glee. In fact, after watching the film on Netflix I logged off the site for the rest of the evening. (Normally I watch a couple of Netflix movies or DVDs per night . I don’t have cable TV.)
After reading some of the viewer comments on Netflix (550 and counting) it is safe to say this may be the most polarizing film ever offered on the site.
If you are brave/curious/open-minded enough to watch Dogtooth to the end you may agree with the Netflix viewer who praised the film as “glorious … twisted … shocking, perverse … scathingly satirical.”
Or you may find yourself siding with the commenter who called the film “nothing more than a study of just how far the lunatic film industry, or as they like to call themselves, artists, are willing to stretch reality in order to prove a pointless point.”
Like one Netflix subscriber, you may even wonder what all the fuss is about: “I don’t understand what the hype is over this movie and why people find it so disturbing.” He (or she) thought the film was ” confusing and tedious.”
However, it is difficult to imagine anyone saying “It was okay, I guess”
And that is the aim of agent provocateurs like Haneke or Lars von Trier (not surprisingly, Lanthimos has been compared to both of those European filmmakers). They want to rouse audiences out of their stupor and provoke some actual emotions – even if they are hostile ones.
Back in the 1990s, playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute, no stranger to controversy himself via films like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbours, recalled one night in New York when an audience member stood up in the middle of one of his plays and yelled,”Kill the playwright!”
“It was one of the best theatre experiences I have ever had,” he told an interviewer fondly. “I like the idea that there is something in my (work) that makes people say,’I’m not going to be a silent partner in all this.’ “
Judging from the response to Dogtooth a lot of people feel the same.