HERE LIES... my soul. Well, our souls, after we all subjected ourselves to Yorgos Lanthimos’s mad genius in Best Foreign Film nominee Dogtooth.
Let’s go back a couple of years to January 25th 2011: nomination day for the 83rd Oscars. As per tradition, a shortlist of nine films in contention for the Best Foreign Language film had been released previously and it’s a big understatement to simply say eyebrows were raised when Dogtooth was included among them. Granted, the Greek submission was exactly the type of film that the executive committee was intended to save and the submissions weren’t really a vintage crop, but there were still films like France’s universally admired Of Gods and Men and Turkey’s Golden Bear winner Honey in the running. In any case, the January shortlist was presumed to be the extent of Dogtooth’s progress. Surely, the same group of people who found Departures superior to The Class, or The Secret in their Eyes stronger than The White Ribbon, wouldn’t go for something as outré as Dogtooth, would they?
It turns out, they would!
Even though some Academy members threatened to resign if the film ever got nominated, even though several of them walked out of its screening, it still managed to make it through. Since the day I started obsessively following the Oscars, which was exactly eleven years ago, I don’t recall a single nomination that surprised me more than this one. Dogtooth was, and in retrospect, is my favourite film of 2010, so it wasn’t just the shock value that made it exciting. It was the Academy letting my horse in the race and more importantly, recognizing originality and eccentricity in a category where those qualities are almost never valued. It was about finally recognizing challenging festival fare from emerging talents.
Dogtooth tells the story of an oppressive factory manager who, along with his obedient wife, have kept their three children on the premises of their lavish suburban house for their entire lives... [more after the jump].
The bounds of simply overprotecting the children from dangers of the outside world are crossed far too often as their parents subject them to mental abuse by mis-education and deceit, and physical abuse by beatings and incest. Their condition is as sad as it is horrifying and in a disturbing way, is also perversely funny. Many of you might even wonder why Dogtooth is included in this series at all.
To some people, this film is a comedy, to others a political satire on dictatorship taken to the extreme. Some see it as a grossly embellished social study of upper-class families or as merely a critique of awful parenting. It is undeniably all those things, but to me, it is psychological horror above all. It is about the terror of being subjugated to such extremes. It's a dangerous prospect: can we really manipulate and be manipulated so completely? Every time I dig into the film again, I can't shake off the eerie feeling that much of what constitutes my "identity" is in fact how I’m conditioned to be; that in much more implicit ways, we are all manufactured products of our environment.
And this brings us back to that gloriously surprising moment when Dogtooth's Oscar nomination was announced; because the violence, nudity and incest aside, this branch just does not like to be challenged all that much. They don't like their films to be this unsettling. They like films about children and their relationship with their parents, but not in such a dysfunctional clan. They like political and social commentary but explicitly, and not presented through ambiguous satire. They like strong auteurial voices, but when they speak a language Hollywood can understand, not when they’re so confidently off-kilter and distinctly experimental. Another nomination for a film like this is going to be hard to come by, but I'll cherish their ambitious decision here for a long time.