Three young adult children, all somewhere in their 20s, live with their parents on the family compound they have never left. The parents aren’t exaggeratedly cruel, and their reasons for this extreme homeschooling (or hostage-holding) are never made explicitly clear, but they have provided a fairly nice environment, considering. There is a large garden, a pool, and stickers handed out as rewards for obedience. And for the son, there is even a young lady who is brought blindfolded to the house every week for sexual favors.
The family at the center of Dogtooth seems happy and pleasant enough, which makes the situation even more bizarre. It is a very interesting look at how we grow to accept and understand reality as it is explained to us. The children learn that the word “excursion” refers to a type of metal, and “sea” is a type of chair. Airplanes fly over their gated compound and even occasionally fall into their yard: one particularly uneasy scene has the father point out a plane overhead, then motion to his hidden wife to throw a toy airplane into the backyard, and the children run to claim it. Their understanding of reality has been completely constructed by their parents.
But, as with all supposed utopias, the cracks begin to show. The daughters begin to lash out at their brother in increasingly violent ways, and circle ever closer to incest (but don’t understand how to get there.) The film is framed within a period of slowly building pressure, but doesn’t offer release- not exactly. It doesn’t offer any answers either, calling on the viewer to mark “how strange” and “I wonder why?”
Parallels to political authoritarianism could be easily and strongly constructed, but the lingering eeriness of the family and its day-to-day suggest something more timeless, more universal, opaque. Without any definitives offered, it allows the audience to do exactly what the children never could: make up their minds on their own terms, give their preferred meaning, and arrive at their own understanding of reality.
“How do people do it?” 23-year-old Marina is virginal in many ways but not quite naive. She lives in an isolated town with her dying father and more experienced best friend, both of whom she tries to learn from, asking them for various little lessons or explanations.
The opening scene of the movie is hilariously awkward: Marina asks her best friend Bella how people French kiss, and they share the most objectively and realistically bizarre attempt to swap spit ever. “How do people do it?” she asks, confused as to why anyone would willingly enjoy such a strange activity. Marina’s curiosity and bewilderment at humans is referenced through her favorite past time: watching the nature documentaries of David Attenborough. (The title ‘Attenberg’ comes from Marina’s mispronunciation of Attenborough, though Bella is there to correct her.) It is such an engaging and interesting way to frame Marina’s outsider curiosity, her inability to really connect. She just doesn’t quite understand people, as if they were a different species. The film is even shot in an anthropological style, peering at the characters and waiting for them to proffer explanations that never come.
Another powerful aspect of her story is her architect father’s decline, which mirrors the crumbling of the buildings he’d designed so many years ago. He in turn bitterly and nostalgically waxes poetic about life, and the lurching decline of Greece and society as a whole. Their relationship is certainly a political allegory for a socioeconomically disturbed and displaced country. While Marina is attempting to cautiously hatch from her shell, her father is preparing to shed his mortal coil. His last lessons to her are blunt but not essentially untrue.
A defiant and peculiar sexual awakening, combined with the acceptance of uncertainty, make for a delightfully oblique character arch. Marina doesn’t speak often, but her behaviors, views, and peculiarity all shine through her fervent, ecstatic, unbridled physical mannerisms. She is one odd duck, but I found her very relatable. A beautiful movie steeped in a sadness that isn’t quite lonely, just apart.
The plot of Alps unfolds in such a piecemeal way that you don’t fully appreciate just how eccentric the story is at first, but bit by bit you put together what these people are doing and it throws everything into question. The Alps are a group of individuals, each with a corresponding codename like Matterhorn, who work as substitutes. When a person dies, the Alps can be hired to roleplay the deceased for the benefit of the survivors. Instructed behavioral tics, practiced phrases, rehearsed mannerisms and learned preferences abound in malleable ways so that the viewer never quite pins down who exactly the Alps really are at their cores.
The movie most closely follows an Alp in her early 30s, a quiet nurse who has also lost someone important to her. When a young girl dies in her hospital, the Alp goes rogue by offering the grieved parents her services without telling the rest of the Alp group. Why this girl, this family? The nebulous characters are so hard to give a ‘true’ identity to, that viewers can only guess at their real motivations, their real emotions. Which conversations are scripted, and which is the authentic dialogue of an Alp? Is the Alp ever not in role-playing mode? How would we know? By the time the story reveals the Alp group’s m.o., the viewer has to reevaluate the scenes that came before.
Another Alp, referred to as “the young one,” is seen in almost constant practice, either for her Alp roles or for her gymnastic routine. In contrast to the older Alp looking for a home, the young one seems determined to escape with her work, but from what we can’t know. The momentum behind the Alps characters is infinitely more confounding than the motivations for their clients. We can imagine why the parents of a dead child might hire an actor to fill that space, but what kind of person signs up to play the child?
It’s certainly an interesting look at how people deal with loss, and when people role-play in their various relationships. It was a deft choice to focus on the Alps instead of the families they serve, because it’s creepy in an entirely different way: the Alps are trying to break into pre-existing relationships, environments, rather than deal with or create their own. The ending was a fascinating unravel of a character we really didn’t get to know (or did we?) so all conclusions are personal and relative. Which serves the story well, I think.