Absurdity in film can be a great thing. It can upend faulty assumptions, bring into question negative social norms and bring to light social issues. It can also serve great value in helping us laugh at ourselves, realize the ridiculousness of our own behavior and help ourselves gain a little humility in a world built around stroking egos. However, absurdity can also be an unproductive, destructive force that divorces a text from containing any meaning, purpose or importance. Such is the case of Dogtooth.
Three teenagers have lived their entire lives inside a tiny country plot surrounded by a tall fence. Their parents have isolated them from all knowledge of the outside world. The television is only used to watch homemade videos and the only telephone remains hidden from the kids. Furthermore, they’ve instilled horror stories in their kids about the evils of leaving before their dogtooth has fallen out and the predatory creatures called cats that pose a threat to all human life.
Here is the foundation for a film that explores the dark issues of over-parenting kids, what happens when keeping your kids save turns into socially crippling them for life. And this is an issue I have a personal interest in because I actually grew up homeschooled. Now, Dogtooth isn’t quite what homeschooling actually ends up being for most people, in fact, I highly doubt there was actual a family that went this far, but I saw more than my fair share of kids cut off from the outside world.
The film could be about exposing that negative tendency of some parents to maintain control over their kids, to strive to keep them perfect and untainted. But the film is cemented in such a heavy amount of absurdity that it quickly sidesteps any interesting commentary to be as bat-shit and bizarre as possible, tearing down the entire fabric of anything that resembles any relationship to reality in the least.
The parents decide to arbitrarily give certain words different meanings. Telephone becomes the saltshaker and zombie becomes a yellow flower. It’s ludicrous and hilarious to the audience, who actually understand what these words mean, but for the kids, it seems natural enough and they have no reason to doubt their parents.
There’s also a perverse sexual element to the film in addition to a highly competitive drive forced by the parents. It seems to go against the entirety of the parents’ effort to protect their kids from the outside world. They’re instilling in them the same appetite for sex and propensity for violence that exists in the real world, perhaps even more so. So what exactly are these parents protecting their kids from?
Some say this is funny, and occasionally it’s a film you have to laugh at because of how absurd it all is, but that’s the problem. It’s absurdist humor for its own sake, stuck in a perpetual cyclical series of the same exact joke repeated over and over and over again until it itself becomes absurd and unfunny.
Maybe there’s something to the level of absurdity, but it comes in such a large dose, and in such an over the top fashion that the meaning gets lost in the madness of it all. There’s glimpse of a great film here, it has touches of maddening brilliance of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, but lacks the unifying focus to make it all work. The premise had the setup for greatness, but it all falls apart and lost itself in the abyss of absurdity.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing