Life With Father
Homeschooling gets taken to absurd extremes in this brilliant Greek dark comedy
Published: November 10, 2010
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Opens Nov. 12 at the Charles Theater
It certainly appears to be an ideal childhood. The three kids spend their days swimming in the pool and playing in the sunny yard of their family’s home in the brushy Greek countryside. They listen to vocabulary tapes during the day; each evening there’s a family dinner with music or home movies afterward. When they have good behavior or excel at family contests, they are rewarded with stickers. But recently the father (Christos Stergioglou) has decided to bring in surly young security guard Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) from his factory to have sex with the middle child now and then. A young man has urges, and the strapping son (Hristos Passalis) looks to be pushing 20.
Dogtooth’s black-comedic deadpan never slips as director/co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos introduces the hermetic world of safety and comfort the father and mother (Michele Valley) have created for their son and eldest and youngest daughters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni, respectively), all now adults. The lessons the mother records on the tapes provide new meanings for words for anything that exists outside the high fence that bounds the estate, the life-long limits of the children’s known world. “Sea” describes a stuffed chair with wooden arms, like the one in their living room; when the sweet youngest daughter needs the salt, she asks her mom to pass the telephone. They believe that the Frank Sinatra albums their father sometimes plays in the evening were recorded by their grandfather for them. When a plane flies overhead or a house cat sneaks onto the grounds, the father and mother improvise an explanation, a reaction, a way to preserve and perpetuate the illusion of their perfect world at home and the unspeakable savagery of the world just over the threshold of the gate barring the driveway. It’s all carefully worked out. It’s all fantastically, hilariously absurd. Except when it’s just plain disturbing.
Of course, the more you try to control your children’s world, the more you risk a potentially unpleasant comeuppance when the real world breaks through anyway. Though Christina is brought to the estate (blindfolded) specifically to service the son, she introduces sex to the eldest daughter too, and barter, and old VHS movies. Before long, a belated youthful rebellion is underway.
Just as the father and mother exercise and enforce almost total control over their home and family, relative newcomer Lanthimos proves equally meticulous in constructing every aspect of Dogtooth. Using long static takes and forgoing a musical score, he doesn’t push or telegraph the absurdity of what’s happening; he simply lets it unfold. There’s never any exposition or explanation involving the construction/construct of the family’s private world, just little bits of information doled out along the way to sketch in the details. Perhaps most gratifying of all, Lanthimos hasn’t created a screed against helicopter parenting or a straight parable. In a way, what we have here is an anti-Wes Anderson movie, an extra-wry depiction of the pitfalls of stunted maturity rather than a celebration of its coddled quirks.
Dogtooth’s dry tone and barely there plot might start to grate but for the perfectly teased out emergence of Stergioglou’s stern father and Papoulia’s eldest daughter as the key antagonists. Mostly kept just out of frame or in the back of wider shots in the early going, Stergioglou’s character and his preposterous attempts to preserve his grand illusion grow more and more outlandish without the actor ever making any overt attempt to draw the viewer in. It’s a brilliantly unshowy performance. The coltish Papoulia, on the other hand, slowly emerges from the slightly dim innocence of her character’s upbringing with more than just an appreciation for costume jewelry and late ’70s/early ’80s blockbusters (her increasingly vivid reenactments of various scenes from cable-rerun classics provide the biggest unabashed laughs here). She develops a sense of lack, an inchoate desire, and, most critical of all, the beginnings of a will of her own. By the time she feels ready to try the world outside her home, you’re not sure who to be more afraid for—her, or it.
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