Cinema is often a distorting mirror of society, accentuating its controversies or fooling us by making the phenomenal look ordinary. Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), is a film of rare, disturbing beauty – so uncomfortably bizarre, actually, that injects you for days after with a relentless feeling of discontent. The film – among others – also marked the so-called ‘Greek weird wave’, a cinematic label known mostly for its uncanny, off-kilter aesthetics and extreme stylisation of language which became, for movie culture in Greece, an omen for a traumatising period of austerity and precariousness.
Indeed, Dogtooth combines the unvarnished cruelty of Michael Haneke’s films with the stylised, social critique of Pasolini’s Teorema. It places us in a middle-class household, only to make it look, some scenes later, like a morbid playground of patriarchy. A family with three children, who have been raised within the confines of their home, is living what appears to be an ordinary life. However, no sooner does a crack appear in their polished mundanity than we see the house turned into a microcosmic dystopia: an unforgiving and dispassionate father, a mother both compliant with and complicit in his deeds, and three children – a boy and two girls – who seem existentially unprepared for the troubles of their adolescence.
The children struggle to express themselves, and to settle in the world their parents have constructed for them. In their language everything is distorted: the words, their way of being in the world, of being themselves, with themselves and with the others. These teens have nothing in common with the usual, effervescent youth depicted in the movies: their bodies are clumsy, deprived of their sexuality – or suspended in a sexuality that looks abnormally innocent. Their movements occupy space but seem untuned, misplaced, contrasting even more with the orchestrated environment of their home. Caught between the hilarious and the authentically vulnerable, all three of them convey the opposite of what society would like them to be: normal, and captive in their own bodies. This is most evident in the scene of a manic ballet performed by the two girls to celebrate their parents’ anniversary.
In a pas des deux of neurotic bourrées, the girls move sideways like toothpicks, ungraceful yet strangely familiar, reminiscent of our first steps into adolescence and its frantic demeanour. Facing the camera – as if being filmed at that very, embarrassing moment – the younger girl moves slightly more slowly, waiting for a signal or a gesture to copy from her sister. When the younger withdraws, claiming she is tired, the older plunges into a stream of wacky expressiveness. It’s like Flashdance, but minus the sexy, minus the shared gratification of her dancing, and plus a far more bewildering gaze.
We certainly don’t marvel at her dancing gifts; instead we question them and at the same time we also feel ‘questioned’. Her jumps don’t elevate her; her splits sound more like ‘ouch’ than ‘wow’; her backbends ache like a bad tooth. And instead of a mesmerised committee of judges, the parents remain aloof yet dominantly present during her show. Her brother, an unbothered guitar accompanist, highlights what can scarcely be missed: the girl’s struggle to give pleasure to her audience, the girl’s body that has to remain flexible yet unbreakable if she is ever to escape this morbid environment.
This dance sequence, because of its queer ambiguity, makes us feel both saddened and uplifted. As many of us might remember how uncomfortable we felt in our adolescent bodies of ungainly yearning, it is often liberating to see and realise that exaggeration could also be taken as mockery: an accomplishment in reverse, one that doesn’t praise our strength, but rather our vulnerability. ●