Dogtooth review – scalp-pricklingly strange fable of dysfunction and self-harm

A scarily ingrown family are at the heart of this brilliant Greek black comedy, with a hint of Michael Haneke

A black-comic poem of dysfunction, a veritable operetta of self-harm, this brilliant and bizarre film from the Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos is superbly acted and icily controlled – it grips from the very first scenes. Development does not get more arrested than this. Dogtooth could be read as a superlative example of absurdist cinema, or possibly something entirely the reverse – a clinically, unsparingly intimate piece of psychological realism. Watching this, and alternately gaping at the unselfconsciously shocking scenes of violence, thwarted sexuality and unexpressed sibling grief, I was reminded of Alan Bennett's maxim that all families have a secret: they are not like other families. But I can't imagine any family being quite as unlike others as this.

Somewhere in the Greek countryside, a wealthy middle-aged businessman and paterfamilias (played by Christos Stergioglou) has a handsome house with beautiful grounds and a gorgeous swimming pool – the upkeep of which this family appears to manage without external help. He has a quietly submissive wife (Michelle Valley), and three handsome children in their 20s: two daughters and one son, played by Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni and Hristos Passalis. So far, so wholesome.

But something is very wrong with this picture. The children, as becomes chillingly clear, are infantilised: they have never been permitted to leave the family compound, and, like Baron von Trapp's children responding to a naval whistle, they have been trained in obedience like dogs, woofing and leaping about on all fours to order, but also capable of walking and talking like convincing human beings, although their conversation has a stilted quality, as if in a light, hypnosis-induced trance.

Their education has been a parody of home-schooling in which mum and dad have deliberately taught them the wrong meaning of words, perhaps to shield them from outside reality, to render this reality meaningless and unreadable, and therefore to blur and jumble its very existence. This grotesque anti-teaching is a symptom of their parents' own shock and trauma, an alienation they have fanatically passed on to their offspring. The father pays his factory's security guard, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to come to the house (blindfolded) and service the son sexually, an arrangement he furiously terminates on learning that Christina is a bad influence on his daughters, before deciding that the arrangement can be carried on, as it were, in-house.

The key to the mystery may reside in a missing family member and a doberman that the master of the house has evidently, paradoxically, decided to have trained by a professional outside the family group.

It is a movie of southern Europe, which bears the influence of something more northern European. With its pristine clarity, refrigerated light and deadpan stabs of violence, it looks unmistakably like something by Michael Haneke or his Austrian contemporaries, Ulrich Seidl and Jessica Hausner. It also brought to my Anglo-Saxon mind William Golding and the early fiction of Ian McEwan. The scalp-prickling strangeness of a family that is outwardly normal yet privately horrific inevitably invites memories of Josef Fritzl and his cellar, and also for me, at one remove, Haneke's The Seventh Continent. Perhaps the two sinister boys in Funny Games were brought up in a household like the one in Dogtooth.

Yet for all this, Lanthimos's movie has a sense of pitch-black humour and even playfulness. He has a brilliant opening sequence in which the children are solemnly taught incorrect meanings to the words "sea", "motorway" and "excursion", complete with incorrect contexts. A "zombie" is a yellow flower, leading to the son's gentle, childlike delight in finding a couple in the garden. These people try to live their stunted lives according to Borges's Chinese encyclopaedia of impossible definitions or Monty Python's Hackenthorpe Book of Lies. Yet even here reality will intrude. Pressed for the meaning of "pussy", which the children have found written on one of their parents' private stash of videocassettes, the mother blurts out that it means "a big light", and incautiously rushes to demonstrate its use: "The pussy is switched off and the house is plunged into darkness." A psychoanalyst would have a field day with that, but sadly there are no psychoanalysts available.

The humour is not entirely cruel, or alienated. At one stage, the son tells the family over one of their meals that they have run out of black tint for his eyebrows, and that he can't use blue tint – because that would be unnatural. The line delivers something unavailable in Haneke: a big laugh.

The film is superbly shot, with some deadpan, elegant compositions, and intentionally skewiff framings of the "headless" variety that Lucrecia Martel used in her film The Headless Woman, imbibing both the sociopathy of the characters and, at one remove, the reality-TV surveillance aesthetic of the Big Brother house. Lanthimos holds your attention with wonderfully inscrutable images, such as trees dappled with Hockneyesque sunlight from the swimming pool. It is a film about the essential strangeness of something society insists is the benchmark of normality: the family, a walled city state with its own autocratic rule and untellable secrets.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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