Welcome Back, Everyone,
For a change, I want to do a mini-review, of two Greek films that were made five years apart, but cover almost identical themes.
In 2009, a shocker called DOGTOOTH (Yorgos Lanthimos) came out, which caused a few ripples around the film festival circuit. It follows the explicit and disturbing tale of a modern Greek family, who are kept hidden from the world-at-large, by a domineering father, who controls every aspect of his family’s life. Not only in what they eat or drink. but even to the extent of making them fear the outside world, by deliberately misinforming them of what will happen if they do not abide by his wishes.
Earlier this year, Alexandros Avranas directed MISS VIOLENCE, a similarly-themed tale, following the death of an 11 year old girl, and the investigation from the police and authorities of what led this child to commit suicide, which soon uncovers some very murky history, in particular from the parents who control everything the children (the 11 year old, and her siblings), see and do, with threats of abuse and violence if they do not acquiesce to the father’s demands. What follows, is a horrific tale of sexual abuse, paedophilia, and rape! (The title has a dual-meaning: referring initially to the young girl as a Miss, and the Violence that she suffers, whilst the second meaning, refers to the fact that everone deliberately ignores the violence and abuse that she and the family endure, under their patriarchal leader.)
Both films have caused controversy, for their content. In the former, it is a scene of hardcore, pornographic sex that baited the censors, and in the latter, it was the explicit and harrowing depiction of abuse against a minor. In both cases, however, each film was passed uncut with an 18 certificate, here in the UK at least.
Greece is well-known for its offbeat cinema. However, Modern Greek cinema has dealt with a lot of tough subject matter, partly in relation to its current standing in the European Union, and the economic crises that are affecting its citizens. Some of that upset, anxiety and anger is now making itself known, via its filmic output. The two films under discussion here, are the two most well-known titles, in recent times.
It should be stated, that neither film is pleasant to watch. In fact, you may find the content highly distressing at times. This is not family-friendly-cinema, by any means! Likewise, many have criticised the films for being too distressing and uncomforting to view, whilst in other reviews I’ve read, some were uncomfortable at the subject matter even being used as a basis for a fictional movie. These two works are definitely not for everyone. They may not even be for the few. I would probably argue, that these films are more interesting if you already enjoy World Cinema, or European Arthouse works, rather than the grubbier and more unsavoury end of the horror film-making spectrum. But with that said, these are not films for the beer-and-snacks crowd. These are true skin-crawlers, that expect and require a lot from the viewer. You need to stick with them, until the bitter end, and even if you get that far, you may still feel like these films are not “great” works of cinema, because there’s no satisfying conclusion awaiting you.
In fact, both films have very open-ended conclusions, which has annoyed a lot of viewers, who like things with finale’s, or at least reasonably wrapped-up in some manner or other. So, if you are wanting to view these to test your limits, then neither of these two works will be what you are looking for, and may end-up testing your patience more than anything else. However, as examples of Extreme Cinema, they are certainly of pertinence, if you like a more cerebral experience! Sometimes, we need to be challenged by unpalatable subject matter!
What makes these titles so powerful for me, personally, is their setting is so ordinary, so mundane, so average. It’s the whole ethos of what goes on behind closed doors, that shocks you. To outsiders, the families in both films, all seem very normal. The father works. The mother is a homemaker. The children are all polite, well-mannered siblings, cleaned and groomed to look respectable. Yet it is behind that veneer of respectability, that lies the true horror.
With DOGTOOTH, the children are deliberately taught lies by the father. For instance, they are told that the “sea” is a large armchair. “Zombies” are tiny, golden-coloured flowers, and that “Licking a keyboard” is not – as you might expect – a sexual-euphemism! In each case, the misinformation is deliberately spread by the father, as a means of psychologically, physically, emotionally and mentally controlling the children – who range from their pre-teens upto their twenties. This “torture” they endure, is not as we would recognise it. In its simplest form, it isn’t any kind of recognisable “torture” at all. It’s just lies, and fairly unspectacular lies. But the lies aren’t the “torture”. The torture is that the lies are a way of intimidating and controlling the children. They are a means in which they are indoctrinated. It is at this stage, that you have to concur that what is happening to them, is nothing more than torture. There’s simply no other word to use! The daily indoctrination of misinformation, deception and half-truths, fed to them from birth until they finally “escape” (and I don’t mean that literally) is the kind of stuff you’d expect to read in a newspaper report about detainees at Guantanamo Bay!
At first, the misinformation is extremely minor. Grass is blue. The sky is green. Water is dangerous to drink, but less dangerous than milk! Essentially nothing more than little white lies. The kind that every parents tells a young child. (The tooth fairy, Santa Claus, etc!) (These aren’t actual examples from the film. I just want to give you a flavour of the style that the misinformation starts at.) However, the misinformation soon spirals horrifically out-of-control, to the stage where a domestic pet cat is the equivalent of a plague-carrier, and family cassette tapes of Frank Sinatra songs are being explained away as poetic, coded messages from a distant relative, the children have never met! On top of this, the most minor of infractions results in the loss of food, restrictions of movement, to more intense punishments of physical violence. All of this, is meted out to the family, whilst the Father (Christos Stergioglou) continues his work in a local office, casually fending-off visits from co-workers at his home, due to illnees of other family members, or simply being too busy with other events.
Compounding this abuse, the father pays a young female co-worker in her twenties, to have sex with his son, as a way of teaching the son sex-education (location of the hymen, etc). He procures her, like a common whore, and pays her just as such. Whilst his wife and the children’s mother knows only too well, of the bullshit that the father is indoctrinating them with, she is equally complicit in the “torture”, through simply condoning his teaching methods, and fearing that if she doesn’t comply, she too may become a casualty-of-war. Whether this is because she fears abuse of her own wellbeing, is never entirely certain.
Compared this, to what happens in MISS VIOLENCE, where the children go to school, but the Father takes them too, and then picks them up from school, every day. Their mother, is hapy to comply with their father’s “illusionary world”, because she too holds some very twisted secrets, that would tear the family apart, if they ever found out. They are not allowed to see friends outside of school time. TV and newspapers are forbidden, lest they pollute the children’s mental wellbeing. Similar indoctrination, but here, the indoctrination really is abuse – quite literally. Here, the family is always under the threat of a beating, games involving the rest of the family being allowed to mete-out punishments on you, or in the worst cases, extreme physical and bloody violence.
To escape this torment, 11 year old Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) decides that she will not end-up being tortured like her siblings, and on the day of her 11th Birthday, walks on to the ledge of her family’s apartment balcony, climbs over the edge, smiles, then plummets to her death! For her, death is the better option, than to endure whatever Daddy Dearest wishes to educate them in. And it’s not long before we see why she chooses death. Here, the torture is extreme! Inter-family incest is a regular, day-to-day occurance. I won’t go further, because to say more will damage a major plotline, but imagine that everyone is having sex with everyone else, and then children are being born out of those “relationships”, and you have some idea of just how fucked-up this family’s dynamics are. But this is not the worst case!
Not by a long shot!
There is one element, we learn, that is so staggeringly shocking, it pales into comparison! The youngest daughter, is pimped-out to neighbours, relatives, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells on an alarmingly-regular basis, for money to cover the household’s bills! The sickening scenes of what these people do to the young girl, comes late-on in the film, but by God it will turn most viewer’s stomachs long before you see what is done to her, by whom, and how often! If you ever needed to know why paedophiles are such a danger, when they hide-in-plain-sight, this film reveals all!
As I said right at the start, neither of these two films are easy viewing. In many aspects, there’s almost a dark vein of comedy in them. It’s as if the director’s are willing you to laugh, at the twisted nature, because you aren’t really sure of how else to react. But you know, deep down, that laughing is wrong. So very, very wrong! And the laughter leaves you, and the twisted, nightmarish creation the film peddles, slowly takes hold, and then you realise just what you are involved in, is so repugnant, you almost can’t fathom facing it.
The nearest experience, I can link it too, is Takashi Miike’s AUDITION. The first hour is very gentle, and then abruptly, you are shoved kicking-and-screaming into the most mentally-scarring (yet legal) experience you’ve ever had to cope with.
Whilst I cannot recommend these films as great pieces of cinema, they are great in their own messed-up manners! You will not, and should not go into either of these films, thinking you will enjoy them, because they are as far removed from “entertainment” as you can get. They are more documentary in tone, than pieces of fiction. The realism and simplistic camerawork, belies what you are watching. But their stories are necessary! Their messages, of how adults can erode everything that is humane and healthy in a child, is so powerful, and necessary to experience, that more people need to view one or both of these films. Both are message movies, and even though the message is highly unpalatable, it’s a necessary one that more of us, as a society, need to be aware of, and take steps to combat. And after so many recent events around the globe involving the mistreatment of minors, the rapes and sexual assaults that take place, and the general abuse of fellow human beings, every day in every nation, we cannot let such actions continue.
The horror really does come from within, and that horror needs to stop. Full stop!
For those of you wishing to take a walk on the wild side of cinema, DOGTOOTH is out on UK DVD and Blu-Ray, in an Anamorphic 2.35:1 print, with English Subtitles, as a bare-bones release. MISS VIOLENCE is out on DVD only, also in an Anamorphic 2.35:1 print, and again, with English Subtitles and no extras. Both are readily availble from Amazon UK. Just be really prepared to be taken down a very dark garden path indeed!