It managed to escape the attention of Portland’s film programmers last year, but Dogtooth, one of 2010’s best and strangest movies, is finally here. If you pay attention to those late-December efforts of self-congratulatory peacockery known as Year-End Top 10 Lists and adjust your Netflix queue accordingly, then you’ve probably already seen Giorgos Lanthimos’ canted portrait of one exceedingly odd nuclear family. Although it’s troubling to think that Dogtooth’s Oscar nomination (for Best Foreign Film) might be the sole reason for this welcome visit to Portland, Lanthimos’ wicked creation certainly deserves a big-screen showcase, no matter how overdue.
The domestic universe of this Greek film seems to have evolved from a bedtime story gone epically awry, as if an overly paranoid parent began extemporizing a fanciful cautionary tale one night and then could not, for whatever obsessive-compulsive reason, stop spinning the yarn that would eventually imprison his children in a world of make-believe. The title refers to one of the many quasi-mystical fatherly decrees delimiting the behavior and mobility of three helplessly sheltered siblings: A child, according to the perverse pater familias, is ready to leave the house when one of his or her cuspids falls out; however, the only way to make it safely into the world beyond the front yard is by car, and a child is not ready to drive until the “dogtooth” grows back. Dad: 1, children: 0.
This dental tenet is the cornerstone of a brilliantly fucked-up parenting style indebted to Texas Chainsaw’s macabre patriarchy and the precious emotional violence perpetrated by Royal Tenenbaum. The adult children, all unnamed, believe house cats are killer beasts and distant airplanes are small toys that occasionally fall into the backyard. Even language has been manipulated to shrink the world: A “phone” is a salt shaker and “excursion” refers to material used to construct floors, while a “pussy” is a big light. That Lanthimos avoids going over the top with his aria of absurdity is a testament not only to his conjuring skills and carefully chosen influences (Herzog and Korine, both masters of the oddball alternate reality, come to mind), but to the baffling and frequently batshit proscriptions that bind even the most ostensibly healthy family unit. Like the best science fiction and magical realism, Dogtooth brings it all back home again, to that moment Mom explained procreation using pennies and dimes—or was that just my family?
93 SEE IT: Dogtooth screens at Cinema 21 at 7 and 9 pm Monday-Tuesday, March 14-15.