In Contention


LONDON: ‘Dogtooth,’ ‘Kinatay,’ ‘Burrowing’

Posted by Guy Lodge · 7:14 am · October 17th, 2009

DogtoothOnce more, Friday’s major festival screenings covered ground I’d already trod in Venice — the day’s glossiest gala slot was reserved for “The Road” (which you know did little for me), with a less prominent early evening slot for Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (which did rather more).

Given the current buzz levels for each film, they perhaps should have swapped places, but festival programmers can be forgiven for not knowing that in advance.

In fact, it was a crammed day for anyone hoping to catch up on the hot Venice titles, including “Life During Wartime,” “The Double Hour” and “White Material,” still my film of 2009 so far. (Friend and critic Tim Robey shares my enthusiasm for the film, claiming the LFF will have a hard time topping it. Truth.)

Hard as it was to resist giving “Material” another whirl, I took advantage of my head-start to catch a stark Swedish mood piece and two provocative Cannes winners that had been intriguing me since May, and not only because of Old Man Ebert’s proclamation that Brillante Mendoza’s “Kinatay” was the worst film ever screened on the Croisette. See if I agree after the cut.

“Dogtooth” (***1/2)

By turns grotesquely funny and ineffably sad, joltingly violent and unsettlingly tender, Greek helmer Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Dogtooth,” which took Un Certain Regard honors at Cannes, is one of the year’s few true originals. Channeling the art of David Hockney in its visual sparseness and the theater of Ionesco in its mounting absurdism, the film ingeniously deconstructs the makeup of a wealthy, normal-looking family via intricate metaphor and brutally cruel satire.

The nameless family comprises a factory-manager patriarch, his subservient wife and three children on the cusp of adulthood — though it quickly becomes clear that the young man and his two sisters have never in their lives ventured beyond the four walls of their expansive suburban property, imprisoned by their simultaneously overprotective and rampantly abusive parents.

We gradually learn the elaborate lengths the parents have gone to ensure their children’s mental and emotional retardation, deliberately miseducating them from birth about everything from sex (the mother professes to be pregnant with a dog) to everyday vocabulary (a salt-shaker is renamed a “telephone,” among many examples). But when the children’s burgeoning sexual impulses necessitate the introduction of a figure from the outside world to the family, their curiosity threatens to overpower the parents’ stranglehold.

The possible allegorical resonances of this story are manifold: some have suggested the film specifically comments on Greek history and politics, others may see it as a heightened commentary on the increasing social isolation of the bourgeois classes, while it struck me as a frightening cautionary tale on the dangers of over-parenting. Either way, it’s a heady, defiantly strange brew, one that will repel as many as it fascinates with its frank, dispassionate sexuality and gore — cat lovers, you have been warned — but one that rattled me more than any of the more grandiosely shocking headline-grabbers from Cannes.

“Kinatay” (***)

Speaking of which, we arrive at “Kinatay,” a grim Filipino tale of extreme police corruption that sparked as much outrage at Cannes as Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” not least when its helmer, current festival mainstay Brillante Mendoza, coolly picked up the Best Director prize. If you were paying even vague attention to the furore at the time, you’ve by now heard the film’s story in a nutshell: a naive police cadet is drafted by one of his superiors into a secret after-hours mission, which turns out to be the merciless rape, murder and dismemberment of a prostitute, a procedure depicted in real time and in shadowy, sometimes wincingly graphic, detail.

It’s not hard to see what about the film ruffled so feathers — but accusations that Mendoza is dealing in dangerous or self-gratifying torture-porn prove unfounded as the film, not unlike Gaspar Noé’s “Irréversible,” reveals its rigid moral framework from the outset. Our perspective mirrors that of the increasingly horrified protagonist throughout; we lose our grasp of the situation together with him and suffer the significant emotional consequences.

Apparently based on true events, the film derives none of the pleasure from its pain that much mainstream genre film does, rather using the horrific central incident to probe social weaknesses. Like his quieter, more recent (and more accomplished) “Lola,” the film amounts to a stinging attack on Filipino bureaucracy, sometimes via over-egged symbolism, but often via intelligent observational detail. “Kinatay” is a hard film to love, and an even harder one to like, but it’s difficult to stand unaffected by its long night’s journey into day.

“Burrowing” (***)

Finally, Henrik Hellstrom and Fredrik Wenzel’s oblique, often hypnotically beautiful debut feature “Burrowing” takes a subtler but no less subversive approach than the previous films in teasing apart the threads of a societal fabric, in this case the placid but internally raging residents of a middle-class Swedish suburb. Though narrated throughout  by Sebastien, an introverted but highly perceptive pre-adolescent boy, he is but one member of a troubled ensemble of social misfits, linked by the street they live on, but with wholly disparate stories.

The most moving (and unnerving) of these involves Jimmy, a young single father still living with his parents and ill-equipped to care for the toddler he desperately loves. We are how his situation came to be, but as we observe, we begin piecing together possible histories for his increasingly irrational behavior, and such is the suggestion-driven approach taken throughout by the filmmakers. Not all the strands are as intriguing, and a too-invasive choral score occasionally jars, but the film’s mature storytelling and painterly HD compositions make it an exciting debut.




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→ 14 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

14 responses so far

  • 1 10-17-2009 at 10:11 am

    Jim T said...

    Why did they have to put the cat thing? Damn, I really don’t know if I wanna watch this. That alone might be enough to destroy the whole experience for me. I’ll think about it.

  • 2 10-17-2009 at 10:51 am

    Carlo said...

    i love that kinatay and filipino films are getting some love internationally. proud chinese-filipino right here!:)

  • 3 10-17-2009 at 11:13 am

    red_wine said...

    Dogtooth seems like a freakishly unhinged movie. It sounds similar in its “WTF?” tone to Familia (1996) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116274/
    Dunno if you have heard of that one.

    And Kinatay was by far the most hated movie at Cannes. There were boos in the press room when its prize was announced. Guy, it seems most people hated it not because of moral reasons or because they were outraged but because it was bad film-making. Ebert atleast said so.

  • 4 10-17-2009 at 12:58 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    It’s not bad filmmaking by any means. It’s actually very intelligently crafted in its use of closeup and Steadicam to represent perspective. And it was hardly unanimously disliked — Screen International and the Telegraph critics were among its defenders.

  • 5 10-17-2009 at 1:18 pm

    Michael said...

    I want to see all of these movies so bad! I know this is a futile question before asking, but does anyone know if any of these movies (and Enter the Void) have any hopes of getting any type of distribution in America? I know it is not at all likely but I can only hope (and be jealous of all you lucky jetset festival goers)

  • 6 10-17-2009 at 1:28 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Dogtooth” recently got a US distribution deal, so I imagine it’ll get a very limited theatrical run in 2010.

    “Kinatay” and “Enter the Void,” however, are still seeking a distributor, and I can’t imagine one stepping forward any time soon.

  • 7 10-17-2009 at 8:12 pm

    henry said...

    What’s with the “Old Man Ebert” comment?

    How about we call you Little Boy Lodge?

    He’s been a professional film critic since the 1960′s and he has a Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

    You’re 26. Barely out of college and with very little experience.

    Name calling isn’t going to put your opinions on the same plane as his. He’s a pro. You’re an amateur. You don’t have to agree with him, but show some respect. He’s seen and reviewed more films than you could ever dream of.

  • 8 10-18-2009 at 12:21 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    For Christ’s sake, it’s obviously (well, clearly not THAT obviously) said with affection — Ebert has been part of my film-reading education since I was in short pants. “Awake in the Dark” has a plum place on my bookshelf. Respect is not in short supply.

    I wouldn’t regularly quote and refer to his writing if I didn’t think he was still one of the most essential voices on the American critical scene, whether I am in agreement or not. But a little tongue in cheek never hurt anyone.

  • 9 10-18-2009 at 5:08 am

    Glenn said...

    Oh christ, i loathed “Dogtooth” so much that I walked out. Granted, I had been struck down by a virus that was making me wanna die anyway, but having to sit through so many pretentious arthouse cliches (oh look, minimal stylised dialogue!!!!! what fun!) was doing my head in (in a bad way) and I walked out. Oh look! sexual inappropriateness!!!!!!! WOW HOW ORIGINAL!

    LOATHE!

  • 10 10-18-2009 at 7:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Haha, I do remember how much you hated the film, Glenn. I can completely understand such a reaction.

    I always find “pretentious” a bit of a lazy jab in criticism, though. I don’t think the film is pretending to be anything that it’s not, but that’s me.

  • 11 10-18-2009 at 8:05 am

    Jim T said...

    Guy, you are 26?? How did you get the time (wrong english I suspect :p) to watch so many old movies ( I think it’s wrong again :( )?

    And, Ebert is the most fun person I know over 60. His mind is getting younger and younger.

    PS: I’m just adding to the conversation. I’m not defending him since he wasn’t attacked.

  • 12 10-18-2009 at 9:02 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yes, I’m 26. Not sure where I found the time, to be honest — I suppose I started young and had parents who indulged my enthusiasm. (Accessing old movies could be difficult in South Africa in the dark days of VHS — the film library at my dad’s university was a godsend!) Still so much I have yet to explore, though.

    (PS. Nothing wrong with the English in that comment at all, Jim.)

  • 13 10-19-2009 at 10:23 am

    Michael said...

    thanks for the info about the distribution deal for Dogtooth Guy!

    And it was very clear from the article that you were not attacking Roger Ebert, so I have no idea why anyone is jumping on you about being disrespectful. I read almost every Roger Ebert review he posts, but sometimes I definitely do not agree with what he has to say, and sometimes he does make overly grand-standing proclamations about films while at Cannes (remember the Brown Bunny) so I think the way you worded your opinion on Kinatay was exactly right. I think knowing you are only two years older than me as opposed to 40 years older than me is actually a benefit, especially since I seem to share similar tastes in movies based on your reviews and articles. Roger Ebert is awesome no doubt, but it is also nice to hear from people closer in age as well to get full spectrum of opinions, and therefore whenever I get to see Kinatay I can see where my thoughts lie as well.

  • 14 10-28-2009 at 8:08 pm

    Erwin said...

    Filipino indie films have been making waves in the international film fest circuit recently. Brillante Mendoza is certainly one of the most prolific but there are other filmmakers out there who are getting noticed.

    I’m a Filipino myself and given how surreal the Philippines is at times, I can totally believe the premise of this film. Here’s an article in Newsweek about ‘Kinatay’:
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/201750