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Dogtooth: Disturbing dark comedy with a bite

Aggeliki Papoulia as Older Daughter (left) and Mary Tsoni as Younger Daughter in a scene from "Dogtooth"

3.5 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

The ways our parents mess us up is the basic premise of countless childhood memoirs, novels, TV talk shows and, of course, movies. But most of these stories, at least the best known examples, deal in familiar themes of dysfunction.

Opening in Toronto Friday and - thanks to a foreign-language Oscar nomination - other Canadian cities in the weeks to come, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthumos's accomplished and fascinating Dogtooth pushes the notion of parents screwing up their kids into seriously disturbing and darkly comic terrain.

The film unfolds in carefully stylized, often oddly framed set pieces, the effect of which is like flipping through a family photo album with no captions and piecing together the story yourself.

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The brilliance here is that, without any clues to the family's past or much in the way of other explanation, you easily understand what has been happening. It's an unsettling scenario open to interpretation.

Three siblings, young adults close in age - an older sister (Aggeliki Papoulia), younger sister (Mary Tsoni) and brother (Christos Passalis) who have no given names - have lived within a walled family compound all their lives. They have been cut off from the influence of the outside world (labels are removed from household products, they watch only home videos on TV) and manipulated into fear-driven obedience by their father (Christos Stergioglou), a factory manager and the only one who leaves the compound. Early in the film, we follow him to a dog training facility, where the future family pet (a sweet-looking mutt) is being trained to become an attack dog.

Educated in line with their parents' bizarre whims, the siblings use "wrong" vocabulary ("telephone" is a salt shaker, for example) and have been taught strange ideas - that housecats are dangerous man eaters, that airplanes flying overhead are actually small models and, significantly, that they will become adults and be able to leave the compound after losing one of their canine teeth. Over time, they have developed competitive games, such as who will wake up first after a whiff of anesthetic. Everything about them - how they move and talk - is odd, but the black humour throughout the film is never at the characters' expense.

Now at that hormone-charged stage of rebellion and experimentation, the siblings run around in their swimsuits and underwear and always seem on the edge of either injuring or having sex with each other. Recently, their father has been paying a female security guard from his work to have sex with his son. When this woman plays a secret game of her own with the eldest daughter, exposing her to outside cultural influence, the family dynamic is irreversibly changed.

Dogtooth has been dividing audiences during a lengthy journey that began at the 2009 Cannes festival, where it won the Prix Un Certain Regard recognizing emerging talent and daring work. Since then it has been travelling the international festival circuit (including Toronto in 2009), opening in Greece and France in late 2009 and a few other countries, including the United States, last year.

The true dark-horse nominee among this year's foreign-language Oscar contenders, Dogtooth leaves bite marks that stick around long after you are released from its grip.

Dogtooth

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  • Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
  • Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
  • Starring Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Christos Passalis and Anna Kalaitzidou
  • (Greek with English subtitles)
  • Classification: R

Dogtooth opens in Toronto at The Royal on Friday with other Canadian cities to follow.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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