Whenever viewers lament verbal exposition as too on the nose, overly oratory, or detrimental to pacing you’re easily reminded of the alternative; the type which develops through action. Though you’d be wiser than to accept as better exposition anything merely meeting the requirement of being “other.” This isn’t to accuse Lanthimos of deliberate opacity, simply a moment to ponder the diciest of two necessary propositions, though the film is the latest in a line of several on hermetic existence equally adamant in refusing to acknowledge motives. Most of the film’s pertinent junctions arrive with the assured realization of the insidious intentions behind the bizarre ways of the family at the center of Dogtooth.
As the film is reluctant to feed its audience the requisite information in one go, those of the patience and disposition to trust the process will reserve judgment for the end and be rewarded to a degree. Lanthimos shows none of his cards prematurely. Beginning with a tape recording of what sounds like a precursory brainwashing exercise before a hypnosis program it can feel somewhat daunting to feel out his early drift. I stopped watching next figuring the words would come in later when I couldn’t keep up with their new meanings. On the second attempt it was easier to let go of biases and allow myself to soak in the proceedings. This wacko family lives in isolation and has crafted an alternate reality as a result, and save for the working father, the members get by on routines that border on the ritualistic with reward and punishment to show for their behavioral progress.
The entire cast is unnamed save for a prostitute-for-hire who works the gate at a factory the father is employed in. She comes in to provide release for the son’s periodic blue balls but is allowed free reign to interact with the two younger daughters. She barters accouterments for cunnilingus with and from the elder daughter—a notion the son fails to recognize as part and parcel of foreplay—after it is established that stationary items won’t suffice for Christina. The dry, monotone delivery of everyone, especially the younger characters, along with their juvenile grasp of taste and boundaries is portrayed in a pale, sunwashed palette with yellowish hues and lots of negative space filmed with a fixed vantage point. That plus an almost cold open and the absence of a soundtrack create an immersive but muted atmosphere conducive for rubbernecking; you can’t look away. And you can’t unsee the shock and extremes that are sure to follow. More impressive is how the lowkey mood allows the breaking point to arrive without warning. Yes, the children do act out but there aren’t signs to ascribe their rebellion from curiosity and idleness to one long summer or a lifetime of pent up impulses.
Whether Dogtooth functions as an allegoical attack on censorship, parenthood or, altogether, as a portrait of perversion viewed from a fly-on-the-wall perspective would ultimately amount to little in terms of impact. The film is not wholeheartedly cryptic although to decode every lexical substitute might as well come with the access to its production notes. The same applies with the symbolism behind cats and airplanes for example. Luckily this was never the intention and there is enough intrigue to keep you keyed in on something else. The in-group setting chosen for the film recalls the one in THE SEVENTH CONTINENT, or the communities in Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE and most recently PARTISAN, making it an enduring trope with the results as varied as the methods employed. In terms of temperament, Haneke is as accurate an approximation as any.