I was terribly excited about the Greek film Dogtooth (directed by Giorgos Lanthimos and nominated for a Best Foreign Film award this year) from the moment I saw its utterly bonkers trailer (sidebar). The film itself has a much different feel (darker by far), and I found much of it honestly unsettling, more so than the more blatant shock tactics of other recent provocations by von Trier (Antichrist) and Noe (admittedly, I gave up on Enter the Void pretty early out of sheer annoyance...seek out local scenester @BARRR for an analysis from someone who surived all three hours of that thing).
Dogtooth has been described by some critics as allegorical, and it has that feel on some level, but I'd defy anyone to draw up a clear formula as to what exactly it's saying. The story itself concerns a family whose parents have raised their children in isolation, creating a distorted reality full of (seemingly) arbitrary and often nonsensical rules--only the car can travel outside the gates until you've grown and lost your "dogtooth" (or something like that); the most dangerous animal is the cat; etc. In this world, the children are taught alternate meanings of words, which sometimes seems an attempt to shield them from sex and violence (we witness instances where "pussy" and "zombie" are given other meanings), but other times seems to have no discernible logic. The children, on the verge of adulthood and lacking other outlets, turn to incest. The father, losing control of their structured existence, turns to violence. And all of this plays out in a strangely formal, meticulously composed style and a mostly deadpan, absurdist fashion that dares you to laugh it off. Definitely recommended for the brave.
Whereas Dogtooth has real bite (get it? get it?), Todd Solondz's newest, Life During Wartime, often falls flat when it's meant to shock. Continuing the "experimentation" of his recent films such as Storytelling and Palindromes, Wartime is a sort-of sequel to his most well-known film, Happiness, featuring the same characters a number of years later yet played by an entirely new set of actors. I suppose it's possible for an audience member to completely understand the plot of the film without any knowledge of Happiness, but Wartime mainly exists to riff on the relationships of the earlier film, with a particular focus on the idea of "forgiveness," a word used so often in the film that it nearly demands a drinking game when viewing. There's certainly amusement to be had (the unforgettable opening dinner conversation of Happiness literally "haunts" much of this film: the ghost of Jon Lovitz's character, now played by Paul Reubens, continues to relive those moments), but Happiness's faux-sitcom tone is largely replaced here by melancholy, with Solondz seeming to posit the idea that, while forgiveness may be possible, we're ultimately doomed to wreck the present by imposing the past on it (in the film's most affecting storyline, the younger son of Happiness's pedophile father accidentally destroys an opportunity for he and his mother to start anew).
While the film's title suggests that Solondz has more global issues in mind for this film, the opposite proves true: the characters want to feel connected to the larger world, but they realize that the only (however unlikely) possibility of "happiness" (get it? get it?) lies much closer to home. The film's final line (quoted by many critics, so I'll do it too) is extremely moving: "I don't care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father." But the film itself doesn't linger as it should.