WINNER of the Un Certain Regard prize at last year's Cannes film festival (the category that rewards "different and original" filmmaking), Dogtooth is the sort of film that shows why European arthouse cinema currently has the edge over the once dominant American independent scene. Darkly humorous, disturbingly strange and deliriously deranged, it's a film made with rigorous style and a pleasingly ambiguous tone, a work that can be variously interpreted as a sly satire on the vagaries of protective parenting, a muted horror riff on real-life monsters such as Josef Fritzl, or even a whacked-out Greek tragedy in which exposure to Flashdance and Rocky can fracture an artificially constructed, barking-mad reality.
It also marks its 36-year-old Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos out as a bold new voice on the world cinema scene, someone who might soon be elevated to a similar position as those twin pillars of Euro provocation: Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.
Set in a luxurious, secluded residential home where three grown-up children – a boy and two girls, none of them named – have been raised by their parents in complete isolation, Dogtooth immediately signals that all is not right with this scenario by focusing on a tape-recorded voice dispensing daily vocabulary lessons to the siblings. The words, all connected to things in the outside world, are given strange new meanings: A "sea" is a "leather armchair with wooden arms," a "motorway" is "a very strong wind" and an "excursion" is "the resistant material used to construct floors". What's more, they've been raised to believe that the aeroplanes they can see flying overhead are really toys pinned to the sky, that the fish they sometimes eat for dinner magically appear in their swimming pool, and that their grandfather is not only Frank Sinatra, but that the lyrics for Fly Me to the Moon are a personalised message of love designed to promote the value of family life as they've come to understand it.
These cruel lies are the work of their vile, nameless Father (Christos Stergioglou), a factory manager who has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep his family life under rigorous control. As the only one allowed outside their bizarre, but idyllic-seeming compound, he keeps the prying eyes of his colleagues away from his home life by telling them his submissive, complicit wife (Michelle Valley) is really an ex-handball champion who has become a wheelchair using shut-in.
To keep his kids from breaking out, he's spun horrendous stories about the dangers lurking outwith their home. Cats, they're told, constitute a significant threat to their life, and roads can only be safely traversed in a car. Instead they're encouraged to partake in physical exercise, participate in endurance tests involving anaesthesia, dress properly each night for dinner, and spend their evenings watching their own home movies on video.
Their only genuine contact with the outside world is Christina (Anna Kalaizidou), a security guard from Father's work who is paid to visit the house wearing a blindfold to service the sexual needs of the adult Son (Christos Passalis). It's her presence that begins to fracture this nutty, disturbing reality, as she allows her own sexual dissatisfaction to get the better of her by trying to exploit sexual favours from the Elder Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia).
If this sounds increasingly lurid – and be warned: incest inevitably finds its way into the story – Lanthimos avoids charges of exploitation thanks to his cool, subdued shooting style, which quietly observes the film's protagonists as they go about their strange, daily routines. It's a creative choice that effectively normalises their behaviour, presumably to better reinforce the absolute mockery the situation makes of the perfect family ideal (nice house, obedient kids) to which so many aspire. But Lanthimos isn't interested in making specific political or social points and he refuses to offer any clarifying backstory. Hints are dropped, for instance, about another sibling who may have escaped, but we're never sure whether this is another lie designed to make the children even more fearful, and we get only the briefest of inferences about Father's motivations for this horrific experiment.
Such obfuscation makes the film all the more unsettling, especially as the kids start testing their physical and emotional boundaries, unleashing years of systematic abuse in brief and brutal ways. It makes for disturbing viewing and can certainly be read as an exploration of the unfathomably horrific Josef Fritzl case (according to Lanthimos, the script was already written and in pre-production before that particular story broke). Yet proceedings are also leavened by moments of black humour that purposely leave you unsure of whether laughter or outrage is the most appropriate response.
Oblique references to such cornball follow-your-dreams movies as Rocky and Flashdance (videos the Elder Daughter manages to secretly procure from Christina) suggests Lanthimos has a thoroughly wicked sense of humour, even if he does follow through with some horrible scenes of self-harm that rival Old Boy's tongue-lacerating finale. The good thing here is that unlike the work of some of the more seasoned European practitioners of provocation, none of Lanthimos's choices feels particularly egregious. This is not a film designed simply to shock in the way von Trier's work often does, and nor does it have the that annoyingly prescriptive, punitive air of superiority favoured by Haneke's films. Dogtooth's oddness is as organic and playful as its impact is incisor sharp.