The mix that got ‘Dogtooth’ to Hollywood

What is the magic recipe for getting a Greek film, that?s in Greek, nominated for an Oscar?

While there may be no hard and fast rules, it seems that director Yorgos Lanthimos and scriptwriter Efthymis Filippou got the mix right in ?Dogtooth,? the 2009 psychological thriller that garnered the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, has been reaping high praise from international media since its theatrical release and has now been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Wendy Ide of The Times, called it ?one of the most distinctive, original and genuinely unsettling pieces of cinema to emerge over the past year,? in her review published on April 9, 2010.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, a critic not given to superfluous praise, opined on April 22 last year that ?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.?

Though not a fan of the screenplay, A.O. Scott of The New York Times praises the camera work and the evocative atmosphere: ?The static wide-screen compositions are beautiful and strange, with the heads and limbs of the characters frequently cropped. The light is gauzy and diffuse, helping to produce an atmosphere that is insistently and not always unpleasantly dreamlike,? he wrote in his June 25 review.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that ?Dogtooth? is weird. It has been likened to the work of Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur of the bizarre who has deconstructed every concept of family and community in films like ?The Seventh Continent,? ?Funny Games? and more recently ?The White Ribbon.?

More than one review, moreover, mentions the case of Austrian pedophile Josef Fritzl, who was arrested in April 2008 after police discovered that he had been keeping his daughter captive for 24 years and was the father of her seven children.

Whether or not this case influenced the international public?s reception of ?Dogtooth,? what resonates with all audiences is that Lanthimos challenges the concept of the perfect family. Being Greek, he is more likely targeting the Mediterranean family model that sees children depending on their parents well into adulthood and the latter consciously or subconsciously manipulating that relationship. What raises ?Dogtooth? above the conventionality of this theme is that Lanthimos also takes the challenge to the limit.

?Dogtooth? redefines dysfunctional as it introduces a family living on a large estate in the countryside. The children, two daughters and a son, all in their 20s, have never left the grounds of the house. Mom, the submissive enabler, and dad, the master manipulator, have taught their children that words mean something other than they do and that the cat in the garden ate their younger brother. The children have been trained, like dogs, to leap when ordered to do so, and their emotional and sexual needs are defined and controlled by their parents.

However, not all is bleak in this house of horrors, because in true Balkan style, Lanthimos squeezes comedy out of even the most macabre situations. The ?pitch-black humor,? in fact, is one of the qualities regaled by Bradshaw, who delights in the opening sequence where the parents teach the children the wrong meaning of words and other conversations between them that ring absurd in our ears but are obviously mundane in this household.

Maria Katsounaki, Kathimerini?s senior film critic and an expert on Greek cinema, told Kathimerini English Edition: ?Yorgos Lanthimos displays the Greek family on a canvas like a Francis Bacon painting: Raw, distorted, warped. Anguish, a sense of going nowhere and angst arise from their complete immobilization. The family in ?Dogtooth? could be anywhere. The place is indeterminate, the language a self-styled dialect. ?Mommy, I found two little zombies. Should I bring them to you?? the daughter asks, espying two yellow flowers in the mansion?s garden. At the dinner table, she asks for the ?telephone? when she means the salt shaker. The grotesque and cynicism coexist in aggressive innocence. The mix is appealing internationally.?

Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis also earned high praise for his work in ?Dogtooth,? especially the play of light and shadow and the edgy framing of shots, as did the performances by Christos Stergioglou (Father), Michele Valley (Mother), Aggeliki Papoulia (Older Daughter), Mary Tsoni (Younger Daughter), Christos Passalis (Son) and Anna Kalaitzidou (Christina).

At the end of the day, does it matter that ?Dogtooth? is in Greek — an excuse cited by so many local filmmakers to justify why their work has not succeeded in traveling beyond the country?s borders?

No, because as long as there?s a good, original idea, a well-written screenplay, a director with a vision that he can share with the rest of his crew and cast, and a theme that can be appreciated by a broad audience, chances are the recipe is right.

Anthony Lane, in The New Yorker (July 5, 2010), says: ?What could have seemed arch and contrived becomes, in Lanthimos?s careful hands, something more mysterious: a fable without a moral, seething with political suggestion but offering precious little to the allegorist viewer.?