Dogtooth: Fritzl vs. Plato

(translation of a review in Swedish on this blog November 30, 2011)

It is not often that a film is with such preternatural precision able to put its finger on the current zeitgeist, as is the case with “Dogtooth” by Giorgos Lanthimos. A family father (Christos Stegioglou) keeps like Josef Fritzl his children (in the film with the collaboration of the mother) captive in the home. He does all to screen them from the reality outside. The family is here represented in its most perverted form as an entity that creates meaning but that is driven towards nihilism. The children, a son and two daughters, are raised with a system of invented semantics where words capable of bearing witness to something greater are presented with a new meaning. Everything from the outside has to be forced into the family’s world of mirrors. A zombie becomes a little yellow flower. And the airplanes that pass over the claustrophobic family home are exactly as small as the toy planes that the father sometimes crash lands on the lawn.

Lanthimos keenly plays with two themes: the cave allegory of Plato postulating that our conceptual reality might as well be distorted, and the solipsistic problem of how we with any certainty can know that something outside of ourselves exists. The thesis that he puts forward, convincingly, is that the “outside” that we wish to imagine is not as given as we conclude it to be. The most emblematic person in the film is not the father or any of the children, but the security guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) that the father hires to sexually satisfy his son. She is presented as a perverted co-actor (but in another game) that cancels the notion that there is a healthy “outside” that can be contrasted to the sick world of the family. There are different realities that become unrealities in their respective meetings. The only thing in the film that connects them is, not surprisingly, the medium of cinema itself. When the security guard lends two video films to one of the daughters the rules of the game are changed.

The claustrophobic feeling is heightened by an oneiric photography and compositions where the camera often comes to rest when the characters get up or start moving around which leads to a sinister partition of bodies. It is an effective craft, but the question is what Lanthimos wants to say with his form and content that a few times too many appears as a carefully studied meeting between Caspar Hausen and Michael Haneke. First and foremost he seems so fascinated by his own ability to create a dense atmosphere that it descends into empty aestheticism. It is, paradoxically enough, in the few shots from the outside world where Lanthimos, in an Antonioni-homage, can finally do something beyond looking for simple effects. It is not especially difficult to represent the human being as inhuman. The challenge should rather be to portray how something that we can identify as human is capable of surviving against all the odds. That all our worlds are constructed and artificial is not a path-breaking discovery. Lanthimos is stuck at the deconstructive level instead of being able to move on with his art. It is one thing to nail a zeitgeist; it is another thing to say something about it. That the medium of film is to liberate us becomes a trite argument that, in this case, does not even seem very likely.

The contemporary fascination with closed spaces and the dire impossibility for communication between worlds persecutes us as a persistent neurosis born out of various pseudo-debates about postmodernism. To uncritically devote oneself to the claustrophobic is neither especially profound nor interesting. The only result is a moment’s masochistic pleasure when we laugh at the situation. Lanthimos has created an intellectual horror film, nothing more. We are presented with psychological and real violence in a desperate attempt to titillate us.

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