A Review of the Relatively New Movie Dogtooth (Kynodontas)

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Giorgos Lanthimos‘s third feature-length film, Dogtooth (Kynodontas, 2009), which is the kind of movie that makes one want to immediately write something about it.

Here’s the original Greek trailer:

And here’s an English-language trailer:

So what to write about it?

1. It’s very bold. The cinematography is superb, consistently creating asymmetrical compositions, cropping heads out of the frame, going blurry, seeking out lens flares, and not being afraid to simply look at things for long periods of time. (The film is fairly studious, nowhere near as frenetic as the English-language trailer implies. Such is the way with trailers.)

2. The film’s structure is fairly abrupt—a succession of shots and scenes that slowly reveal its world to the audience, rather than forming a strong narrative. This works very well, because the film’s world is fascinating.

3. Gradually, a small narrative works its way in, and the film shows some real courage and ingenuity in building to a powerful, quease-inducing conclusion.

4. It’s rather violent and disturbing (although not, thank God, in a torture porn kind of way). That willingness to look includes a willingness to stare at some violent and disturbing events. But I thought all the violence a logical outgrowth of the conditions of the film.

5. Speaking of which, Dogtooth is extremely absurd. Its concept is that two parents have raised their three children in total captivity, denying them access to or knowledge of the outside world—and then going even further, mis-educating them as to the small estate that they inhabit. (A salt shaker is a telephone, the chair in the living room is the sea, etc.)

6. It understands that ample doses of sex and nudity will help sell an art film. (I’m not faulting it for this!)

7. As such (and for many other reasons), it begs comparison with Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s brilliant Frank Wedekind adaptation Innocence (2004):

Mind you, I don’t think Dogtooth is as good as Innocence (which I consider one of the greatest films of the past decade), but it’s still pretty marvy.

8. Some will say it begs comparison with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004). I suppose that’s true. I even kind of like that movie, mainly for perverse reasons. …Well, an evening’s lineup of films is suggesting itself.

9. Other filmmakers I thought of while watching Dogtooth:

Tsai Ming-Liang, for its occasionally static approach and scenes of broad comedy:

Michelangelo Antonioni, for its languid pace, and startling images of harsh landscapes:

Lucretia Martel, for its bold close-ups, and claustrophobic approach to the horrors of living in such close confines with one’s family:

Well, that’s excellent company to be in!

10. It also reminded me throughout of Jeff Wall’s photography:

Jeff Wall, "Boys cutting through a hedge" (2003)

Dogtooth

Dogtooth

Jeff Wall, "A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947" (1990)

Dogtooth (Note that this still is cropped, and that the actual shot is much less symmetrical—and therefore much less Kubricky.)

I’m not claiming that Lanthimos was trying to recreate those famous Wall images, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking consciously about Wall. …Well, that didn’t make me like Dogtooth all any less!

11. Those who enjoy interpreting art metaphorically will find much to mine here (see, for instance, the last line of Ebert’s review). That said, the film, refreshingly, doesn’t insist on any particular interpretation. It simply presents itself. This is correct; it’s very complete in itself.

12. It’s extremely good.

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26 thoughts on “A Review of the Relatively New Movie Dogtooth (Kynodontas)

  1. I want to see this film Adam.

    As far as ‘The Passenger’ – at :45 in the clip you show (Nicholson arms flapping over Ocean), is I believe one of the two instances in the film (the other being Schneider in the car, against the trees) where Antonioni leaves himself and an almost Spielbergy special effect intrudes, but doesn’t.

    Shouldn’t we say Kubrickian?

    I won’t let you call Antichrist torture porn without justification. So, justify…

    • I always really liked that moment in The Passenger (and I like even better its echo, when Maria Schneider stands up in the car; in this clip it comes around 5:10). (Note to all that that clip from the movie is edited.) I can’t say that Spielberg ever crossed my mind.

      The only “effect” I think of belonging to Spielberg (meaning that one can’t do it without making me think of him) is that cliché where the director pushes in on someone staring in wide-eyed wonderment at something, then cuts to the reverse view of the dinosaur, alien, alien dinosaur, etc.

      • Yeah, I’ll drop the Spielberg because the two aren’t in the same category.

        I believe (and could be wrong) that those two instances, Jack’s is in slow motion and Schneider’s is in fast motion, are along with the dream sequence and ending of Zabriskie Point the only times Antonioni uses a different motion in any of the storied films. I believe there is slow motion in his last short from Eros.

        Maybe some fast motion with Thomas in the car driving in London.

        • Those are good eyes! I don’t think I ever noticed the rate change in the Nicholson shot, but looking at it again, I think you’re right.

          I’m less sure about the Schneider shot. I’m going to have to spend the rest of the afternoon watching it over and over again. (Last Tango, too…)

          Incidentally, for those who haven’t checked it out, Nicholson’s commentary on the DVD of The Passenger is deliriously out of this world.

        • Oh, and I kinda like Spielberg. It’s usually my liking not liking him, but that’s still liking…

          A friend of mine (who feels pretty much the same way I do about Spielberg) pointed out once that, while he and I usually object to films over technical issues, and not moral ones, Spielberg is one of the few directors we admire technically, but object to morally.

          (That was a while back, though. I probably object to more films morally these days.)

          Spielberg’s 00 films seem somewhat interesting, though (not all of them, but some). It’s the 80s and 90s that are so problematic.

          • This interesting, because I see so much today how people praise the technical aspects of films (Nolan, P. Jackson) and then say the story leaves them cold.

            I can’t watch little Stephen anymore. Like so many he seemed free as a bird near the beginning ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders’ but slipped into giving history lessons.

  2. “Kubricky” sounded better to me in the moment. Maybe I’ll try to get others to make the switch.

    When I saw Antichrist, it was clear to me that the sold-out audience was there primarily to watch Charlotte Gainsbourg slice up Willem Dafoe. (There’s a reason why Lars Von Trier slow-rolls all “the good stuff” until the end.) Said audience was extremely restless for the first 80 minutes, in which nothing pretty much happens (and very slowly). They came and went, brought back more popcorn and Sno-Caps. But you should have heard their excited squeals of terror once Gainsbourg drilled through Dafoe’s thigh and bolted on the millstone, or cut off her clitoris with the rusty pair of scissors (nice close-up, Von), or masturbated blood from Dafoe’s penis—all presented in full view and graphically—need I go on?

    I don’t see why the Von Triers and the Hanekes should get passes where Eli Roth doesn’t. Mind you, I didn’t call Antichrist a bad film, above. I just pointed out that it belongs to a contemporary horror subgenre, which also happens to be a subgenre that I myself don’t enjoy. (I don’t enjoy watching Gaspar Noé films, either, but that’s no indictment of his filmmaking skills.) If you read my comment above as a criticism of Antichrist, that’s your own bias against the subgenre. (I say, if you enjoy it, own it! Personally, I hope never to see Antichrist again.)

    Going into Dogtooth, I was worried it might be torture porn, and I was relieved to find it isn’t (although it is violent at times). (The difference is a simple one: Dogtooth doesn’t contain any long protracted scenes of one human torturing another, presented for the audience’s sadistic delight.)

    Obviously many do enjoy extreme gore; I’m not one of them. And undoubtedly there exists better and worse torture porn; I’m not qualified to tell one from the other. (Salo could be called proto-torture porn—in many ways it’s the movie that Von Trier wet dreams of making—but talk about a film that criticizes you for wanting to watch it!)

    I will state here, though, that I think Antichrist is garbage, and that Von Trier’s better days are long behind him. And I say this as someone who used to be pretty excited about his movies. (Yes, the same goes for Haneke.)

    • First off, thanks for the post, Adam. I’m definitely interested in checking out Dogtooth.

      But I have to chime in here since I’m a Von Trier fan (can’t say the same for Haneke) — in fact, I was tempted to buy one of those cinemetal VT shirts at IFC…

      I think Antichrist is one of his better movies in a while… Manderlay was a total flop and The Boss of it All was what it was — enjoyable but not particularly ambitious… I’m a bit ambivalent about the gore at the end and still a bit confused why it has to completely hijack the attention of the audience in such a spectacular way. There’s so much of the movie that I really love: the beautiful night exteriors, the authentically Tarkovskian imagery… I think when I responded to Greg’s post about Antichrist, I called the film an exquisite choreography of malice…or something like that. And I do think the experience of the film is not unlike reading a good Pinter play.

      Obviously you’re being tendentious when you relegate the movie to just a “sub-genre.”

      It’s like lumping Von Trier’s The Hospital with Chicago Hope and ER… Udo Kier can eat Noah Wylie for breakfast…

      • Hi Michael,

        I’m always happy to read what others liked about the movie, or any other movie I don’t care for. In my better moods, I like to say, “There are movies I like, and movies I haven’t yet learned to like.”

        However, I think you misunderstand me when I call Antichrist part of the torture porn subgenre. I’m not “relegating it” to anything (and I never used the word “just,” nor would I ever—no movie is ever “just” its genre). Subgenres (and genres) are vast and wide and complex. I’m not trying to reduce the film to anything; I see it more as a simple statement of fact. (Remember, I love genres. It’s not a dirty word for me!)

        There was (and maybe still is) in the 2000s a trend of filmmakers making graphically violent movies in which characters torture one another in explicit detail. Those films can be critically grouped together as a subgenre of horror, commonly called “torture porn.” Some of those movies are undoubtedly better than others; I leave it for their fans to debate that. I don’t think there’s anything controversial about this (many critics called Cannes 2009 the year of torture porn), and I’m certainly not trying to be tendentious. (In fact, I think it’s pretty tendentious for fans of the movie to try and claim the movie isn’t part of that subgenre! Just, uh, what does happen, then, in the last 30 minutes of the film?)

        I repeat, if you don’t like the movie being called that, I think that’s your own problem with the genre talking. I don’t intend it as a pejorative. (I was just happy that Dogtooth wasn’t part of the subgenre, because I don’t happen to like the subgenre.)

        I tend to see a lot of fans of Antichrist trying to explain or “justify” the violence at the end. Without trying to psychologize too much, it seems to me their consciences are bothering them: they need there to be a good, moral, intellectual, agreeable reason for Von Trier to show all that, other than (or in addition to) “we want to see it.” Me, I say, if you like to watch, then just own up, like good old Chance did. I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with that. I do think it’s hypocritical to get off on it, and then pretend otherwise (which is what the audience I saw it with was doing).

        And Von Trier’s The Hospital (which might be my favorite of his films, incidentally) is certainly both a horror project and a hospital project. And it’s no surprise he made it in the 90s, when hospital TV shows were popular. (Why are people so eager to disassociate this man’s work from popular culture? He himself never does that; quite the opposite.)

        Cheers,
        Adam

        • I mean — is Dreyer’s Passion of Joan “torture porn”?

          You seem to suggest that the only reason one would want to see a film with violence is because of a voyeuristic impulse to “get off on it.”

          • Michael, how on earth would The Passion of Joan of Arc be torture porn? Meaning, how on earth does that film fit the (widely recognized) genre description I described above? If you don’t believe that directors have been jumping over one another for the past ten years to make torture porn movies, or that Antichrist doesn’t fit the genre, then say so. But don’t be ridiculous.

            Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry on torture porn names thirty such films made between 2000 and 2010. (It includes Antichrist among them.) It also includes a link to this 2009 Daily Telegraph article, which notes how Cannes critics responded to Antichrist by calling it torture porn. As I’ve noted elsewhere in this thread, I don’t think it’s in any way controversial to include Antichrist among the ranks of that very clear subgenre. Indeed, I vividly recall reading dozens of film articles last year in which that very topic was endlessly discussed! And in which no one—not even the Great Von Himself—objected to the labeling!

            And yes, I do believe that if people go to see movies with extreme gore in them—like, say, graphic close-ups of a woman cutting off her own clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors—and then write approvingly about those films, and call them exquisite choreographies of malice, and remember them so fondly they’re tempted to buy a t-shirt to advertise their love, and also speak up and encourage others to see the same movie—then, yes, I do believe they’re getting off on the violence. Among other things, certainly, of course! Always—of course! (Note that I took great care NOT to say, “that’s the only reason” why people would want to see such movies.)

            What I said was: if you enjoy watching movies where people graphically torture one another, then don’t pretend otherwise. I’m not going to judge you! Dogtooth has a lot of sex and nudity in it. I enjoyed watching it! The director knew that a lot of people would! That’s why he cast some beautiful young people to be in it, and then told them to take their clothes off! And that’s part of why the film did well at festivals, and why it just ran for a full week at the Siskel. It’s naive to pretend otherwise. (And it isn’t a new phenomenon. Antonioni and Bergman and Bertolucci and Fellini and Godard, aka The Greatest Director of All Time, used it to great success in the 1960s and 1970s!)

            (There’s a reason why young directors have long been encouraged to make a horror film as their first feature: they can fill it to the brim with blood and naked tits!)

            Of course, as you so carefully wrote, you were “a bit ambivalent” about that cliterectomy, and all the other messy stuff that so thoroughly occupies the last full third of the film. Funny how every Antichrist enthusiast I talk to takes pains to downplay their reaction to the film’s extreme graphic violence: “Gee, I can’t understand why people focused so much on the penis spurting blood, or the graphic self-cliterectomy, and weren’t instead waxing poetic about the beautiful nighttime exteriors.” You know perfectly well why people got “completely hijacked” by the violence—BECAUSE LARS VON TRIER, THE WRITER AND DIRECTOR OF THE FILM, PRESENTED IT IN SUCH A SPECTACULAR WAY.

            He didn’t have to! That was his choice! And it’s absolutely why the film got so much attention! And such a wide release! (No one gave two shits about The Five Obstructions or Boss of It All!) (Both of which I liked much better than Antichrist!)

            …Incidentally, I remember now that the US VHS release of The Kingdom blurbed it as “ER on acid!” I’m not claiming that LVT wrote that blurb, mind you. But his series participated in that hospital series trend of the early/mid 90s.

            Bloody-nut Cheerios,
            A

            • I would say please don’t group us with the people that go to see films for titillation sake. I think you know that anyway.

              It seems you are saying that Von Trier filmed in such a spectacular way to make money or to get a wider release. Maybe not, but it’s presented pretty straight forwardly, there aren’t any rock songs being played to be ironic, etc.

              I stand by my ‘realist’ reading of the movie (above or below, don’t know which). And I’d like to be an NPR reporter. There are many ways to read a film Adam.

            • I was being willfully ridiculous with the Dreyer comment, Adam, but if one likes to see burning women, then one would presumably get off on it.

              But the real issue is this genre thing — and I think Antichrist is not sufficiently defined by the subgenre “torture porn.” And for that matter, the genres of “the musical” or “the war movie” only have a limited amount of heuristic value in understanding Dancer in the Dark or Europa. I mean — genres are impure…we don’t need Derrida to tell us this. And obviously Eli Roth is adhering much closer to the horror genre — as ER is adhering much closer to the hospital genre.

              Von Trier is, indeed, deliberately engaging with popular genres, but he bends genres and plays with them with, I think, a considerable amount of artistry and intelligence. So when you so blithely call Von Trier “derrière-garde” because Roth was there first, well that’s not really the point. I mean the series The Office preceded The Boss of it All, but the point is not which came first but what someone can do with a particular generic vector.

              I love genre too, Adam, but talking about genre can have obvious limits. For example, I think it’s more productive to see Antichrist through the lens of, say, allegory and overfixating on the subgenre “torture porn” delimits the conversation. As far as the end of the film, the bloody ejaculation recapitulates the proximity of eros and thanatos from the film’s beginning in too obvious of a way.

              …but to have a polemic against a film and to blame it on subgenre seems not the most sensitive reading of it. It seems like saying you don’t like David Lynch’s Blue Lady Shanghai because you don’t like handbag commercials…

  3. Yet mon ami, isn’t your guy Tarantino all about torture porn?

    I never saw Kill Bill and it happened to be on (sans sound) at a LITERARY reading in NYC, so I watched it a little. I believe the beginning. Women slicing up each other, killing a little girl. Who needs that shit? There is no myth behind Tarantino films. He’s a video store clerk from LA, he’s a movie lover no doubt, but he’s a shlock meister, and most of the good scenes in Pulp Fiction are rip-offs of Psycho and other original films.

    I abhor extreme gore (oh, that very poetic mister) and while I admit Von Trier delights in it, it’s purposeful. The couple in AntiChrist is fucked up. They just lost of a child, the man doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going (control freak) and the woman may or may not have been torturing their son before he died. Retreating to Eden there is a whiff of the magical because these two people (albeit deeply disturbed) have a karma that turns nature against them. Why would the animals and trees want these two knuckleheads in their midst.

    Tarantino (and even worse Stone of Natural Born Killers) don’t have much to say, that is why I think they resort to numbing violence. Look at Bresson’s images, he had something to SAY, Au Hasard Balthazar as you quoted to me is about the world, according to Godard. Titillating violence. And while I think Von Trier is messy in terms of violence, I don’t think it’s titillating – it’s the fantasy of all couples who grow to hate each other – they want to kill each other. Also, no Tarantino film has any coda resembling AntiChrist’s – he has a Bible thumping murdering spouting scripture to cajole the audience into thinking a murderer is an ok guy, but that’s another story. I don’t know about the coda. Like you, I probably won’t see the film again, but I think it has it’s place, as do most of Von Trier’s work. For me, he is a filmmaker that despises America and there is always a place for that in my heart.

    My original thoughts:

    http://bigother.com/2009/11/01/lars-von-triers-slippery-sloppy-antichrist/

    • I like Tarantino (I wouldn’t call him “my man”; I simply like him and his movies, and think he’s a pretty excellent filmmaker), but, sure, he’s made torture-porn. I’d say Reservoir Dogs is more TP, though, than Kill Bill, which is more Shaw Bros.: the violence in KB is totally cartoonish. I think that’s a real distinction. (I wouldn’t call the Shaw Bros. torture porn, not in a heartbeat.)

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reservoir Dogs is my least favorite Tarantino film. I think it’s well-made, but I never feel any impulse to rewatch it. It’s playing this month at the Siskel, and I’ll be going to see Jackie Brown instead.

      And the first time I saw Kill Bill (in a theater, with sound), I didn’t like it. The second time I saw it (at home, on video, again with sound), I thought it was pretty excellent. I think I was more into it the second time. It also seemed more cartoonish to me that time (perhaps because I’d already seen it?).

      I’m not opposed to violence in movies. I’m not opposed to gore in movies. I’m not opposed to sadism in movies. I’m not opposed to anything in movies! Movies should be free to touch upon and include everything that we have in life, and if possible, more. There’s simply some stuff I don’t like watching. Most torture porn films fall into that category. I find there are other things to occupy my beautiful mind with.

      Others are perfectly free to watch and like Antichrist all they want, and talk about how the violence is justified, etc. I personally don’t care whether what the couple does to one another, or whether the extreme gore that Von Trier presents (which are two separate things, n.b.) are “justifiable” in terms of character psychology or plausible narrative or not—that’s never any concern to me. I am not an NPR reporter, I am not a psychological realist, and I’m not concerned with whether movies present coherent metaphorical readings. I’m 100% a Marxist formalist.

      I just think Antichrist is lousy, lazy, self-indulgent, boring, unpleasant filmmaking. And I’m not saying much there that Von Trier (much to his credit) hasn’t said about it himself. I mostly forgot about it right after I saw it.

      What offended me about that film, though, was how vigorously it was marketed and sold by the Cannes critics and the critics and commentators in this country. Everyone was so “scandalized” by it. And there was no scandal—there was titillation. (Von Trier wasn’t pushing any boundaries. He wasn’t doing anything Roth hadn’t already done, years earlier! As I said at the time, it was derrière-garde) Anyone who went to see it should simply ask him or herself, “What was I purchasing a ticket to see?”

      You may be one of the saints, Greg, who was more interested in Von Trier’s dingy handheld DV cinematography, but all the art students and indie-film snobs I know were buzzing about it because they wanted to see the violent sexual for themselves. (“Does he really show her…? Oh, I just couldn’t look at that! …Could I?”) It was bourgeois torture porn, the indy-art film version of Eli Roth.

      Be honest, is all I say. People can like Antichrist‘s psychology all day long, but own up to why you prefer it to The Son’s Room.

      One of the reasons why I so admire Frank Miller is because he’s honest about what he does. He likes big guns and violence and strippers with big tits—and he doesn’t pretend otherwise.

      (Have I mentioned how much I like Russ Meyer?)

      • I willing to admit I have a vendetta against Tarantino, as I think you do against AntiChrist. But vendettas bring people together as well as tear apart, right?

        I never said the word ‘justify’ which you have put in quote marks, I said the violence was purposeful. I’m not in love with this movie, but it has it’s place. It made me write a 2000 word essay and many movies I see don’t move me at all. I just saw ‘Winter’s Bone’ less than 24 hours ago and while it is a fine work, it didn’t get beneath my skin, like Bresson, Cassavetes, Ozu.

        Von Trier, for all his faults, knows how to transmit his subconscious into a motion picture, a la Lynch, Kubrick. It’s messy, it’s not ‘The Shining’ but it’s potent.

        I really don’t care about cutting a clitoris, a character could be cutting weeds, as long as it’s done artfully, I’m there.

    • Greg, I was flashing back to our first disagreement over Tarantino:
      http://bigother.com/2009/12/31/my-favorite-new-films-of-2009/#comment-2341

      Ah, memories…

      And here’s the program the Siskel is running this month and next:
      http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/tarantino
      I like that it’s not just a retrospective, but includes films that influenced or accompanied QT. Rio Bravo on the big screen this week in Chicago! (And His Girl Friday sometime next month!)

      And that’s what I like best about Tarantino: he’s done more than nearly anyone else these day to get people watching great older films, not mention foreign films.

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  6. Thanks, Adam, for another insightful review, which I totally enjoyed reading a couple of weeks ago. I love hearing what you think about the movies. The phrase “willingness to stare” has already become a favorite part of my film-descriptive vocabulary. I couldn’t help but think of it when watching Todd Haynes’ Safe the other day, which of course recalled Dogtooth for one or two other reasons, as well.

    Cheers!
    alex

    • Thanks for the comment, Alex! I think that “willingness to stare” line comes from some thinking I was doing about claims I’ve heard David Bordwell and Jonathan Rosenbaum make on independent occasions; both of have them have argued that long takes represent a certain kind of interest in other humans—an interest in watching people do things, and having reactions over time. (I hope I’m not misrepresenting them too much.)

      Which isn’t to say that filmmakers should use only long takes—but it’s one thing the long take can do. And as shot lengths have decreased in Hollywood films, longer takes tend to stand out more these days. In general. Whereas they were much more common in the 1960s/70s, in the cinema of Antonioni and Jancso and Akerman, among others—so much so they almost became a cliché. (Orson Welles once amusingly criticized Antonioni’s tendency to show you such long scenes of people walking down very long roads.)

      But today, filmmakers like Bela Tarr and Gus Van Sant (both heavily influenced by Jancso) and Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul really stand out….

      …This is all a bit spacey, sorry; I’m feeling spacey at the moment. (“Feeling Spacey” might make an interesting film, a Kevin Spacey-version of Being John Malkovich… set in space…) And not that the shots are super-long in Dogtooth. But they stem from a similar interest, I imagine.

      Spacey!

      Dogtooth struck me as a better example of what Sofia Copola was trying to do, to some extent, in The Virgin Suicides. But the one who’s making the best cinema of this type right now, in my opinion, is Lucrecia Martel. See, for instance, her film La niña santa.

      Cheers,
      Adam

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