Does anybody ever get riled up about Foreign Language Oscar nominees? Haven’t we just been taking that category for granted for a while now, counting on heartwarming universal tales of triumph over adversity, or “current events” with cosmopolitan airs, and never really getting around to watching them? “Dogtooth,” from Greece, delivers a new opportunity to wonder what the Academy was thinking. In a good way.
So this is what happens when a petty and perverse little dictator of a dad (Christos Stergioglou) loses control of his three teenagers (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis) and their disturbed mom (Michele Valley) by introducing a service-rendering security guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) to the totalitarian homestead. Good. To. Know.
An angry-absurdist rebuke of oppressive social ritual, as played with straightfaced brutality dressed in soft white cotton: It’s like Luis Buñuel meets Michael Haneke! Fun! To non-film-nerds, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ grimly funny, nerve-poking satire, co-written with Efthimis Filippo, may have to remain an acquired distaste. Survivors of especially sheltered adolescences could wind up cringing in dark corners and trembling like frightened animals — or recommending the movie to everyone they see. The best thing about “Dogtooth” is that it doesn’t ever lose its nerve.
With its shrewdly Dadaesque language recombinations, its cool cinematography of face-obscured framings, and its poignant perversions of Bach and Sinatra, this is one heady exercise. But of course all the sexual tension and sinister violence keep things from getting too cerebral. There is real aesthetic pleasure to be had here, but it’s the same kind you get from admiring the forged beauty of a deadly weapon. Lanthimos makes the most of that soft and inviting Mediterranean light — about as sunny an atmosphere as his sullen subject can take.
The DVD includes a useful interview with the director, who explains his original impulse toward something like science-fiction — a way of wondering about the future of families. A bleak future, apparently. He also says that as a moviegoer he doesn’t like having things explained to him right from the beginning, preferring instead to do a little work of his own to make sense of it all. Hence the decision to avoid a title like “How Not to Deal With Your Children’s Adolescent Sexual Curiosity — Seriously.” With “Dogtooth,” Lanthimos has made a film for himself. And for our presumed-tone-deaf Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Who knew?
It probably won’t win, but no matter. Notwithstanding the nation-doth-protest-too-much uproar over Amy Chua’s memoir “Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother,” in which is suggested that effective childrearing requires not merely strictness but also a spur of competition-stoking cruelty, it seems safe to say that certain Puritan austerities do still linger in the American soul. So it’s fun to wonder how we’ll all really feel once we’ve let “Dogtooth” draw some blood.