‘Dogtooth’: No Indifference Allowed

In the Oscar competition for best-foreign language film, the entry from Greece, “Dogtooth,” is definitely the outlier – and underdog. In one fashion or another, all four of the other films are outwardly directed, addressing aspects of relations between the West and the Third World. “Dogtooth,” in contrast, is hermetic, a study of a family in which the parents have decided to literally wall their children off from the rest of the world in order to protect them from malign outside influences.

“Dogtooth” is also a deliberately transgressive film in some respects, with a story that includes incest, violence and the appearance of animal cruelty. In a telephone interview from Athens, the film’s director, Yorgos Lanthimos, 37, said that he welcomed “strong reactions, whether positive or negative,” and would be unhappy only with viewer indifference.

His wish has been granted, according to people who have attended screenings of his film for Academy Award voters: last weekend some in the audience booed and hissed the film, and one even vowed to quit the committee that selects the foreign-language nominees. Here are excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Lanthimos.

Q. Were you surprised that your film got a nomination?
A. Very surprised. I was even surprised when we made it to the nine semi-finalists. So getting into the last five was a huge surprise. To tell you the truth, it’s not about the film being good or bad. I’ve seen many films that I don’t consider any good being nominated, and maybe sometimes winning. But the type of film this is didn’t seem to me like a film they would select.

Q. There has been a lot of controversy among critics and viewers about “Dogtooth” and your intentions. Is the film meant to be predominantly serious or humorous? Or is it actually both?
A. I think the tone of the whole film, the exaggeration of things, there are so many things that are humorous because they are so ridiculous, that people have to laugh. Did you find it to be funny?

Q. Yes, but in an Ionesco theater-of-the-absurd way, not in a “ha-ha” sense.
A. Well, that’s O.K. Humor doesn’t always have to be ha-ha, though I have to say that in many screenings, the audience tends more towards ha-ha. But in others they are quiet, even silent.

Q. I noticed on the interview you did for the “Dogtooth” DVD that you talked about your original inspiration being almost science fiction.
A. It’s a thought about the future. What if there were no more families anymore? Do we actually need them? Is that the best way we can raise our children or organize our society? I tried to show “what would happen if…..?” The extreme exaggerated case can then be used to show the reality and the truth that exists in smaller amounts in real families.

Q. Has the reaction to “Dogtooth” varied from country to country?
A. It has been kind of uniform. There are people who are basically appalled, and then there are those who are very enthusiastic. It depends on their background, their political and sociological state. In America, for instance, they were saying that these things reminded them of the dangers of home schooling. In France, on the other hand, they were talking about an allegory for Greece’s dictatorship at the end of the 60s and in the 70s.

Q. And at home in Greece?
A. Well, because this film had won a prize at Cannes, which is very very rare for Greek cinema, and many other prizes internationally, when it was screened here, it did quite well for the kind of film it was. And now, of course, with the Oscar it’s being re-released here. It’s become a huge thing here, because an Oscar for Greece is quite rare; it’s been like 33 years since we were last nominated. So it’s like the news of the week or month, and I’ve been hunted down by journalists. They want to feature it on every show on TV, in the news, and the situation has become not what the film is about.

Q. Did you set out to deliberately provoke extreme reactions?
A. I never intended to shock anyone on purpose. I actually tried to be quite careful because of the subject matter and only tried to show as much sex and as much violence as I thought was appropriate for the tone of the film. Of course that standard changes from one person to the next, which is why I expect some people to be shocked and not have the stomach for this thing.

I knew that some scenes had to be shocking. Not because I wanted to make a shocking film, but because what we are talking about is dangerous, serious, ridiculous, and this is a way for people to actually realize that.

Q. And what appalls people the most? The incest taboo being broken?
A. Some yes, but others by the violence of the father toward his children, and some even by what they think is animal cruelty. You probably could tell the story without this, but the balance between this very dangerous situation, between the humor and the violence, everything had to interact in a way that you would get the appropriate amount of everything, so that it would make you think about things, rather than just shock you. This could be a much darker film, actually, but I didn’t want to make that film. I wanted the viewer to be able to breathe between all these things.

Q. I wasn’t aware that there was also a controversy about the scene in which one of the three children appears to kill a cat.
A. Many times that is the first question. I just find it very weird that people are asking about the cat. That also happened in England. They were thinking of rating the film on the basis of whether we actually hurt the cat, and if we would make an official statement that no animals had been hurt. There are so many other issues in the film that this seems to me quite funny, that there should be more concern about hurting animals than hurting people. For the record, we did not harm the cat.

Q. There were moments when I was watching “Dogtooth” when I thought that you must be a big admirer of Luis Buñuel, especially “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Phantom of Liberty.”
A. I really do like his films but I actually haven’t thought of that. Because people tell me about that quite often lately, I am starting to think about that more. Usually what I’ve said, because this is a common question to filmmakers, and I was having problems in the beginning, I settled on Cassavetes and Bresson. I didn’t want to expand after that, but the truth is that I really do like Buñuel, and I understand the connection that some people may find.

Q. How big of a budget were you working with?
A. I would say how small of a budget. This was a very small thing, and we had to do a lot on our own. It was basically 200,000 Euros from the Greek film center and 50,000 Euros that the production company chipped in. Many people were working for free. I don’t really know all the figures for promotion, and going around to festivals and all that. Maybe 350,000 Euros in total, for everything. And asking a lot of favors.

Q. How do you feel when you hear that some Oscar voters were so offended by “Dogtooth” that they were arguing with others about your being nominated?
A. It’s what matters about films. If people go into debating and trying to understand or explain, it’s very important to me. That’s why I really don’t mind negative reactions, if they actually have a good reason.



The CarpetBagger - 04/02/2011

Photo:Yorgos Lanthimos, director of "Dogtooth".