Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Foreign Best

The Greek film Dogtooth received a lot of film festival attention over the last year or so, but was already available on DVD by the time it opened commercially here; even so, happily, it had a pretty good run. And then it got an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film; an astonishing development for that generally wretched category. I mean, you could credibly argue that Dogtooth is actually one of the best foreign-language films of the year. And in a flamboyantly “foreign” way too: perversity, explicit sex, weirdness galore, no ultimate closure. Obviously it never had a chance of winning.


The film (directed by Giorgos Lanthimos) depicts two sisters and a brother, all in their late teens or thereabouts, confined by their parents to their house and its grounds, kept in by a high wall and even more effectively by lurid stories of what lies outside. The parents shield them from media and much modern technology, compounding their ignorance by teaching them flagrantly wrong definitions for such common words as “sea” and “motorway.” In this rewriting of the world, Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon is a recording of their grandfather (with the father providing his own translation); planes passing overhead are mere toys which sometimes fall from the sky (and which the parents contrive to occasionally find in the garden); and a cat wandering into the yard is a vicious beast which the boy correctly butchers with garden shears.

But the siblings are becoming restless and sexually aware. The father caters to the boy’s urges by paying a local woman to sideline as a prostitute, but he ignores the psyche of the girls, an omission at the centre of the film’s narrative. So that’s enough information, I expect, to support my reference to Dogtooth being weird. The film never explains the parents’ motives for imprisoning their children in this way, and obviously it’s a story of oppression and abuse, but that’s not its primary interest; in certain ways, their proscribed boundaries even form a kind of twisted liberation, allowing them to retain a sense of wonder regarding things like fish and headbands.

Descent into Hell

The film is focused more, I think, on the hermetic structure itself, and on what this suggests about the insecurity of our broader social contract. It asks us to reflect on the strenuous arbitrariness of what we’ve created for ourselves, with our expectations and rituals and customs and hang-ups, and to acknowledge how easily it could all become grotesque and self-defeating (assuming, of course, this hasn’t happened already). This isn’t a function of “evil,” but simply of inherent human limitations and follies: the father is just an unexceptional, dumpy-looking man, his actions likely driven in large part by fear and confusion; the mother just seems to be swept along (the film’s critique seems specifically patriarchal, as it would have to be). I don’t know to what extent this would inherently mean more for being Greek, but of course, since the time Dogtooth was shot, the country’s descended into an economic near-hell, giving everything on screen guaranteed additional resonance. The film ultimately depicts a small-scale revolution, but whatever we might read into its magnificently ambiguous, withholding final shot, it’s certainly not going to be a Rocky-like closure and transcendence (Rocky, for more weirdness, provides a passing reference point within the movie).

Dogtooth is not for all tastes, as the phrase goes; it’s a necessarily cold and carefully sculpted work, sometimes deliberately repulsive and at other times bewildering…it is, as I said, very definitely foreign. But it conveys a sense, as few films do, of having fully achieved its intended vision. Now, I might also apply that same basic statement to another of this year’s foreign-language film nominees (and one with a far greater chance of actually winning – the outcome will be out there by the time you read this) – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful. The difference would be though that if a particular vision’s not ultimately worth achieving, then it’s not worth achieving well.

The film follows the travails of Uxbal, a middle-aged father of two, doing whatever it takes to survive in the underbelly of Barcelona, connecting Chinese knock-off manufacturers with African street vendors, supplying non-union construction workers, paying off police, even dabbling in mysticism; for all of this, still living in unprepossessing conditions. And then he’s diagnosed with cancer, allowing him only a couple of months. The film’s main selling point, no doubt, is Javier Bardem (also nominated, as best actor, after earlier winning at the Cannes festival), who fills its centre with great gravity and charisma.


There’s a distinct downside to this though, in that Biutiful increasingly conveys little reason for existing other than to tap this gravity and charisma, leading it into what I’d call ethically dubious territory (the rest of this paragraph comes with a spoiler alert). Late on in the film, more than twenty Chinese die in the basement where they’re locked in every night, suffocated by the cheap heaters Uxbal purchased to take the edge off the cold. The event is presented of course as horrifying and traumatic, but it’s still ultimately just a piece in the mosaic of his suffering. I don’t see much moral difference between such a device and the faceless villains who get blown away by the magnetic protagonist in a lamebrain action drama; I don’t think it would ever occur to a truly refined and thoughtful artist to traffic so glibly in this kind of event.

Inarritu is an expert of grim dazzle, and the film might seem instructive about the sad realities of the new global economy, except that the “instruction” doesn’t cover anything you wouldn’t glean from any of a hundred newspaper articles. Last year’s vaguely similar Un prophete (another Oscar nominee, which lost out to the vastly inferior The Secret in Their Eyes) explored somewhat similar territory with much more analytical complexity and power, and with a genuine sense of discovery. This isn’t to say the films have similar intentions though. Un prophete was as narratively meaty as The Godfather, whereas Biutiful, underneath all the sound and fury, belongs more to the category of domestic melodrama, even contriving to have Uxbal’s on-again off-again wife sleeping with his brother.

In some generalized way, I suppose Inarritu means to validate the sad environment he depicts, by showing how everything remains possible; the more he cranks things up to excess, the more we can be assured about the indomitable human capacity for transcendent expression. But in practice this means the film pays more attention to conventional spiritual blather and sentimental inventions than it does to tangible exploitation and suffering. Meaning it doesn’t feel particularly foreign at all.

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