Jul 27, 2010


Forget about Inception. The most strikingly original film now showing at a theater near you (Cinema Village, if you live in NYC) is this Greek movie, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes this year. It is a cruel, yet morbidly entertaining little fable about mind control. I don't want to say much about the plot, so you will be as startled as I should have been had I not read all of Anthony Lane's review (still, had I not read the review at all, I wouldn't have known about this movie, but critics need to stop giving everything away).
Remember the Austrian creep in the news who kept his family in a dungeon? Well, it's  something like that, except luckily this is Greece, and the family lives in a sunny, Mediterranean house surrounded by a tall fence.  The tyrant who keeps them inside is not as crass as to be looking to just procreate with his own children. He is more concerned with keeping them pure and exercising absolute control over them. The fact that he looks like a third rate bureaucrat is one of the many smart touches of the film. His children, however, are positively Riefenstahlian.
One of the most astonishing aspects of this film is that it shows the enormous capabilities of human imagination, not when it comes to designing amusement parks or feel-good 3D movies, but when it comes to making up an entirely alternate reality, in this case lying, to keep people under control. First thing, and most important thing to change is language. Euphemism rules. There is no information about the outside world, and what there is, is distorted (to ghastly comic effect). There are treats if you behave, threats and violent punishment if you don't. The parallels with any paternalistic totalitarian regime (Nazism, North Korea, etc), are clear. But this movie goes beyond politics or ideology. What about the control men seek to exercise over women? For instance, it has been decided that only men have sexual urges (Newsflash: not true). Or parents over children, or basically one being wanting to totally control another, be it a nation, a child, a spouse, or a pet.
The filmmakers have imagined this alternate reality to an amazingly detailed, logically coherent extent. Everything is totally, horrifyingly plausible. With spurts of the darkest humor ever committed to film. There are no false steps (except perhaps one), there are no groaners. There are no movie cliché behaviors. The control of tone in this movie is almost as scary as the control it depicts. It is incredibly well written. There is zero exposition. The audience is thrown smack into the middle of the bizarreness and is immediately given clues to both dispel and enhance the bracing sense of  disorientation. The closest parallel I can find are the sadistic kicks of the Michael Haneke of Funny Games, except Dogtooth is much less histrionic and manipulative and not at all interested in berating its audience. Much, much better.  
Be warned that Dogtooth invests absolutely nothing in beliefs like the goodness of the human heart, or the human love of freedom. Au contraire, it places its hopes squarely on the most basic human urges, on human instincts that cannot (but not for lack of trying) be controlled, like sex. Or, at its most benevolent, the human hunger to hear alternate lies.
At one point, control is lost. Chaos appears gradually, in unexpected behaviors, which are not remotely heroic. The whole thing starts to unravel. But this is no Shawshank Redemption. If you are used to a steady diet of Pixarish pieties, this film will feel like someone cracked you upside the head with an iceberg. I love this feeling.

If you prefer a different kind of feeling, you can stay on for the showing of Mademoiselle Chambon, an achingly romantic French film, with the wonderful Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain, which, almost the exact opposite of Dogtooth, is a story of human emotion in full bloom.
Makes for an excellent double feature, as long as you don't reverse the order.

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