Three indefinitely grounded siblings are stuck in an alternative universe dictated by their parents' cruel whimsies -- think an eternal "Big Brother" house as designed by Lars von Trier -- in Yorgos Lanthimos' "Dogtooth." Though at first nothing much happens and even less is explained, the Greek helmer's sophomore pic does exude a strange fascination throughout. A clearly present and utterly devious sense of humor might help it get some high-end commercial engagements in Euro burgs, though its natural place is at fests that embrace a take-it-or-leave-it approach to programming.
The nameless family's son (Christos Passalis) and his two younger sisters (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni) are -- not all that blissfully -- unaware of what happens in the outside world. Their father (Christos Stergioglou), who works at a factory, is the only one allowed to leave the isolated family abode, which is surrounded by a very high fence. Besides a hidden phone only the mother (Michele Valley) uses, there are no means of communication available.
The kids, who seem to be in their late teens or early 20s, spend their days learning useless things from cassette tapes ("a 'carbine' is a beautiful white bird") or devising their own weird little games ("I've got a new anesthetic, want to try?"). They are bullied into submission by the strict rules imposed on them by their parents, who often literally make them act like dogs.
The siblings' entire worldview is dictated by the often false or misleading information they receive, and some auds will no doubt spy a biting critique of parental irresponsibility and homeschooling, arguing for the importance of social interaction for the proper development of children. But helmer Lanthimos ("Kinetta") leaves the reasons behind the parents' dictatorial behavior up in the air.
Things really go haywire when the only allowed visitor from the outside world, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), is brought in again to have sex with the son. She exchanges some goods from the outside world with the sisters, which sets off a chain of events that quickly turns violent.
Ace editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis strings together the material in a way that suggests these snippets of the kids' lives are part of a cyclical, neverending story of boredom, half-truths and disturbing behavior. The ingeniously constructed screenplay also shows how wrong or irrational teachings can quickly spiral out of control, with increasingly disturbing humor used at first to leaven the proceedings before making auds laugh at the painfully logical conclusions to all the preceding lies.
Clear tension between the secluded home and the vast outside world strongly recalls Andrew Wyeth's painting "Christina's World," and pic's consistently troubling atmosphere is what keeps audiences hooked.
Visually, "Dogtooth" is more akin to David Hockney's brightly lit and unnaturally calm views of pools and villas. Like last year's Swedish Cannes title "Involuntary," lensing consists mostly of fixed camera shots that rarely show the characters in their entirety, mirroring their cut-off location and distorted worldview. Two brief erect-penis shots guarantee pic's arthouse cred.
Camera (color, widescreen), Thimios Bakatakis; editor, Yorgos Mavropsaridis; art director, Elli Papageorgakopoulou; costume designer, Papageorgakopoulou; sound (Dolby Digital), Leandros Ntounis; associate producer Athina Tsangari. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 18, 2009. Running time: 94 MIN.