A tale of a dysfunctional family

I watched Dogtooth today. I first read about it in October when it was playing during the London Film Festival. Unfortunately I couldn’t get tickets back then as it was sold out. Presumably because it was so hyped – the reviews were excellent and every critic was urging you to go watch it.

I do admit I’m a sucker for good reviews but the fact that it was a Greek movie made it impossible for me to resist seeing it. It was kind of weird when the film started and Greek words filled the dark room. It got even weirder when the subtitles appeared on screen – for a moment there I started reading them, unsure why.

Anyway, not because I’m Greek and all, but it’s really worth watching it. It’s not an easy film and it can be quite disturbing but it’s very smart and poignant at the same time. Re-reading the different reviews tonight, I do realise that it is indeed a film open to interpretations.

Does the house simply reflect the familial life in a close-d circle or is it a projection of society in general where power imposes the norms and everyone out of the circle is an outsider? Is it an allegory of the nanny state that consorts to violence to maintain the much treasured social order?

If you go watch it, you’ll probably have your own ideas about it.

For me (being Greek and all) certain things had a particular resonance. I think it’s the sort of cultural territory I’m so familiar with that I can tap into it in a different way than a non-Greek that might have been watching the movie at the same time as me.

First of all, the overprotective parents and the house as a haven. True, the script took the whole concept too far for the purposes of the film but it doesn’t change the fact that these are both patterns which are a reality for famlies in Greece. I was brought up quite liberally (as Lanthimos, director of the film, also admits) but I have heard the stories of my friends who were actually sneaking out in the middle of the night at the age of 23 so that their dad wouldn’t know they were going out. And whose mum thought they had never had sex even when they had long term boyfriends (the whole innocence theme that Lanthimos is also exploring, albeit not a sexual one). As for how old most people are when they leave the paternal/maternal house, I’ve only known few cases who have gone forward with it before the age of 30 and who didn’t actually move in a house their own family owned anyway.

Also, I loved the whole idea of the different meanings of words and the distorted versions of reality such as the man-eating cat that killed the poor brother who decided to leave the house before he was supposed to. It reminded me of the advice our parents used to give us when we were kids; ‘don’t pout like that otherwise your face is going to stay permanently like this’, ‘don’t swallow gum otherwise it will be stuck in your belly for 7 years’, ‘eat your food otherwise that bad gypsy/ policeman/ old man is going to take you away’. All that with the best of intentions, because swallowing gum is certainly not good for you and nutrition is very important but the element of fear had to be brought in so that we wouldn’t stray from what it was their rule.

In the film’s case, the rule was that the outside world doesn’t exist and that the children should strive to be better and learn more in order to earn more stickers and choose what the entertainment would be for the night. Memories of my childhood came screaming back as I remembered the sticker board in primary school, much like the one the three kids in the film had. For every good essay or drawing, we’d get the approval of the teacher and a sticker. If by the next meeting, our stickers failed to meet the expectations, our parents would be told about it. Of course, that was a way to encourage us when we were doing something good but this constant need for improvement stifled many. Many that had to bear the many hours of foreign languages tutoring, the piano lessons and the football courses, the encyclopedia readings and the recitals.

Maybe I see this bubble more than ever now that I’m away. This need to set the tracks for children’s life – to be educated, to procreate, to stay safe within the spaces of what you’ve learned as familiar.

Under the current circumstances in Greek society, perhaps this film could also be interpreted as a need for some to leave this bubble. Maybe young people in Greece have had enough with being taught about how many stickers they should get to receive praise and to wait until a toy plane is thrown to them as a distraction. Maybe it’s time to venture outside of what was familiar for all this time. It’s going to hurt a bit but it won’t be as bad as pulling your own dogtooth out.

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