Dogtooth, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and Wild Grass, directed by Alain Resnais
Finally released here on the same day, two of the 2009 festival circuit's best, oddest films concern appetite suppression, pitting social controls and conventions against hungry hearts.
Dogtooth, from Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos, takes place on a well-manicured suburban estate that might be somebody's sarcastic Eden, given its absolute hermeticism and omnipotent patriarch. Father (Christos Stergioglou, tired-eyed as an Andropov-Chernenko-era apparatchik), with his stay-at-home wife (Michele Valley), has raised three children to adulthood with no outside stimulus—indoctrinated by tall tales of the big bad world, rote drilling, and a reward system, brother and sisters (Hristos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) are too ill-socialized and fearful to set foot into the driveway.
The parents enjoy perks unknown to their charges (they hide the porno and also the telephone; the kids, like on nights when you were sent to bed early, can only hear murmuring), and neutralize hints of the world beyond the walls. When father wants fish for dinner, he sneaks them into the pool and spears them (further cementing his protector-provider mythos). Loaded words are redefined—"sea" means "sofa." (It's not just for allegorical reasons that the kids don't have names.) One recalls the domineering paterfamilias in Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, as recently described by Jonathan Franzen in the NYTBR: "When you talk, you know you create a world."
In addition to being your symbolic pick of Our Father, Father of His Country or Father Knows Best, Papa is a filmmaker, shooting home videos to screen as closed-circuit simulacra of family movie nights. But, as in a closed country, bootleg VHS tapes are eye-openers: courtesy the son's imported playmate, Hollywood's finest suggest grounds for existential and erotic discontent.
Lanthimos is as domineering as his patriarch, parceling out information at his own pace so that uncanny details are later contextualized; structurally, his film is as self-contained as its setting, all metaphors functional. When danger—a kitten—breaches the perimeter, the family is trained to repel the interloper by barking on command.
Another fitting metaphor for the tension between clampdown and autonomy might come from Wild Grass, the octogenarian French New Waver Alain Resnais's comedy of impending mortality, which cuts away to grass working its way through cracks in the concrete as aging Georges (André Dussollier) obsesseses over Miss Frizzle-haired Marguerite (Resnais's wife Sabine Azéma), a dentist and pilot of restored WWII-era dogfighters. As Georges progresses from letters to phone calls to slashed tires, fascination spreads, as if virally, to Marguerite, her friend (Emmanuelle Devos), and Georges' wife (Anne Consigny).
As uninhibited as his monomanical characters (they rarely even change clothes), Resnais seeds Wild Grass with throwaway sight gags and digressions, from police station cocktail parties to torrid dentistry. Like in Dogtooth, cinema provides a language to articulate human desire. As Marguerite exits a repertory house to meet with Georges, the busybody narrator intones, "After the cinema... Everything is possible," a playfully clear explanation for Resnais's primary-color-coded neon lighting, soundtrack riffs, and literal fantasy sequences. (When Georges imagines Marguerite, she's done up like Amelia Earhart.)
It seems germane to note here that Resnais previously directed a film called Love Unto Death. Although Georges is introduced pondering his impending end—while surrounded with ticking clocks—Wild Grass transcends its own conclusion, its whacked-out spirit sprouting, as if reincarnated, in a new set of characters.
Both opening June 25