Family antics, Dogtooth
Yorgos Lanthimos must be one of the most original directors of his generation; I thought his film The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) was a perfectly executed modern-day Greek tragedy (if you would excuse the pun); and so what if critics or viewers thought it wasn’t an exact adaptation of Iphigenia, it didn’t need to be, such is the freedom of invention for a director. Whilst I didn’t like The Favourite (2019) or the more recent short Nimic(2019) that is showing on Mubi, I did enjoy The Lobster (2015) which reminded me of another, the Japanese film After Life (1998) which I’ve discussed in conjunction with Vif-Argent recently.
It’s not possible for a film to exactly conform to our idea of a play or another film, to do that would be extremely boring for both director and audience. Dogtooth, an earlier film of Lanthimos is along that same vein as that of The Lobster.The absurdist humour and absence of sentiment in the film’s main characters meant that pathos is excised from the audience. We cannot help but be drawn in to the unfolding lives of those disaffected characters.
The fragmentary nature of the film and the seeming lack of a cohesive narrative drive the audience to invest in the characters’ every action. We derive meaning (and this may vary from person to person) from what we see, based on our own experiences of cinema or histories. Lanthimos extracts much meaning out of predominantly action images.
The almost stoic presence of the characters, their lack of emotion, their resolute falling in with what is required of them: that the father drives Christina, a security guard from his work place, to provide sexual services to his grown up son is just an everyday episode, of the family members going about their banal existences. Another time, the three grown-up children engage in a family game where all three are blind-folded and having to ‘seek’ their mother, locatable by the sound of her voice counting up the minutes. It’s a reverse ‘hide and seek’ - and seek they must. Remembering what Baudrillard wrote: that the worst thing for a child when playing the game of hide and seek is to not be found; if you’re too well hidden, they give up and they forget you instead of finding you. The game is nullified because the rule dictates that there needs to be a ‘hide’ and a ‘seek’, without one of these elements, it is not possible to conduct the game. Here in Dogtooth, the rules of the game are understood simply to be just that and the father (none of the characters except for Christina are named) goes to all extents to ensure that the game remains in play, as does the eldest daughter.
All the cast members, especially that of the eldest daughter Angeliki Papoulia, who has worked with Lanthimos for three of his films, including The Lobster, are completely believable. And Christos Stergioglou as the father is also notable, as the oddball dictator-like patriarch; setting up rules of the house that may seem totally absurd, but are totally convincing for the family; the dynamic between all the family members is also nicely tuned with the off-kilter sibling jealousy at its finest.
There is something of an absurdist humour in most Lanthimos’ films, and Dogtooth holds its ground as one of his best. Its pared-back nature, stripped of the type of artifice that The Favourite was propped up on, means that this film will continue to feel modern and challenge perspectives and expectations of cinema audiences.
Kala azar is also the name of a potentially fatal immune system disease, Leishmaniasis or Black Fever, that is caused by the bites of female sandflies that carry the leishmania parasite. If you look at the Médecins Sans Frontières website, you’ll find that the statistics are staggering, with between 200,000 to 400,000 new cases each year. It is the second largest parasitic disease in the world - and yet, not many people would have heard of it.
This largely silent film offers a permeable border between the human and the animal: that line where the human ends and the animal begins, is continuously being blurred. An unnamed couple played by Pinelopi Tsilika and Dimitris Lalos are lovers and business partners; they run a kind of crematorial services for bereft pet owners. Travelling through a landscape that looks to be the bordering on deserted, I would not necessarily say post-apocalyptic as the highway seem to be jammed with lorries and trucks. The theme that runs through the heart of this film is the perseverance of nature, and you can see the wildering process in the deserted landscape, although some scenes showed rundown fenced-off areas that may indicate refugee camps, not the mention the rifle gallery next to where they work.
As part of their job, the couple go to meet with these pet owners in all sorts of rundown and out of the way houses and farms. They caretake the deceased animals by collecting their bodies and small containers from the owners, (some of these are just plain bottles or jars, others are more like fancy trinkets, and sometimes the animals are wrapped in a beloved scarf) and take them back to their ‘crematorium’ before returning their ashes to their owners (in the jars and holding vessels). The idea that all the animals are cremated together, so that the ashes return to the owners would be mixed in with a collection of other beloved animals that have also perished and have been cremated alongside, is a lovely one; but would no doubt offend the ‘me’ culture these days. I like this collective way much more the sycophantic antics of providers who now claim to be able to ‘freeze-dry’ your pets (as if taxidermied pets are not weird enough - I do like taxidermy, just not of my own pets), this kind of practice is bordering on the ghastly.
The idea of preservation in this film reminds me of another - a wonderful film called The Ring Finger or L'annulaire (2005) directed by Diane Bertrand (sadly I don’t think she’s active anymore). And in this film, which stars the beautiful Olga Kurylenko (she suited this role perfectly), her character works at a ‘laboratory’ or ‘museum’ of sorts, one where people are able to come to preserve a beloved possession; be it a pet that has passed away, music score, or even a memory. If you haven’t seen this film, please take the time to do so as it’s showing on Stan at the moment.
Avant-garde director Janis Rafa has made a very fine debut feature in Kala azar; crossing over the abyss, if only the arc of what remains of civilisation can be summarised by the chicken factory scene, where a philharmonic orchestra provides a live concert for the thousands of chickens the night before they are to depart for their final destination. Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations is an adpt finale for the chickens and a tribute to our historical past, (Nimrod was the great hunter in the book of Genesis; and now, we are no longer the great hunter, but instead, we are live animal factory owners). This dedication to our very distant past is an interesting one, especially since Sir David Attenborough’s latest documentary tells us that currently 70% of the mass of birds on this planet are domesticated, and the majority of them are chickens.
This ‘special treat’ for the chickens was organised by the father of the woman; her parents are the silent older couple, who are perhaps even more primal in their behaviour then the younger couple. The mother is fantastically portrayed by Michele Valley, (who was also in the role of the mother in Dogtooth), and she lives in a house that is festooned with dogs; she baths with them, eats off the same plate as them; treats the bites on the dogs (as well as her daughter) with this homemade gloopy potion from a prickly pear-like cactus.
To tease out the animal and the human is to draw a line between the feral and the civilised, and yet, the practice of game hunting, or the way people turn away from roadkills with disdain, and the treatment of animals for slaughter, show that there can be little difference between man and animal. How do we find a space within this kind of landscape that allows us to be apart from this herd? Rafa’s pervasive narrative attempts to provide an answer in this exceptional film.