“SOCRATES: Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets… men [pass] along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
GLAUCON: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
SOCRATES: Like ourselves…”–Plato, The Republic, Book VII
DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos
FEATURING: Christos Stergioglou, Aggeliki Papoulia, Hristos Passalis, Mary Tsoni, Michele Valley, Anna Kalaitzidou
PLOT: A Father and Mother raise their three children—two girls and a boy, aged somewhere between their late teens to twenties—in an isolated country estate with no knowledge of the outside world. The children spend their days playing odd games, engaging in strange family rituals, or learning new words with incorrect definitions; they are taught that “sea” means an armchair, a “motorway” is a strong wind, and so on. The one outsider they know of is Christina, who Father brings in weekly to satisfy Son’s sexual urges; inevitably, she discloses facts about the outside world that disrupt the family’s artificial harmony.
- Winner of the “Un Certain Regard” prize (which recognizes works that are either “innovative or different”) at Cannes in 2009.
- Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011 (only the fifth Greek film so honored).
- According to writer/director Lanthimos, the three actors who played the children got into character by inventing games (like the “endurance” game the kids in the film play) to pass the time.
- Mary Tsoni, who plays the younger daughter, was not an actress prior to this role; she was a singer in a band.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dogtooth is a movie made more from concepts than from imagery. Most likely, the scene that makes the biggest impression is the one that best encapsulates the family’s strange rituals. To celebrate their parent’s wedding anniversary, the two girls perform an awkward, shuffling dance, as invented by two children who have no knowledge of choreography, while their brother accompanies them on guitar. After the younger girl bows out, the rebellious older one begins throwing her body around with bizarre, manic abandon, until her parents object to this display of individuality.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beginning with the conceit that the meanings of ordinary words have been changed, Dogtooth presents us with an unsettling vision of an “ordinary” family where the basic rules of social behavior have all been unpredictably altered, for reasons that can only be guessed at.
Original trailer for Dogtooth [Kynodontas]
COMMENTS: “Dogs are like clay, and our job here is to mold them,” the dog trainer explains to the Father when he tries to retrieve an animal and bring it home before its training is complete. “Every dog is waiting for us to show it how it should behave. Do you understand?”
“Sure,” answers Father, with the same blankly severe expression he always wears. He is, in fact, the last person the dog trainer should be lecturing on the importance of strict adherence to a behavioral modification regimen. We’ve already seen that he and Mother teach their children that the word “sea” means an armchair, regularly bring in a prostitute for Son’s scheduled bout of sex training, give out stickers to the kid that performs best in tasks like holding their breath the longest or finding Mother first while blindfolded, and punish Son for lying by making him hold Listerine in his mouth until the alcohol burns his gums. Every aspect of the children’s existence is tightly circumscribed.
Although there is an overarching narrative, Dogtooth is mainly built from such examples of the children’s training; the story is wider than it is deep. Lanthimos expands his kernel of an idea about two parents who build an isolated reality for their cloistered offspring by exploring every aspect of daily life in the enclosure. The kids’ entire world is limited to the house, a garden surrounded by a tall wall behind which they are told exist horrible creatures who will kill them, and a swimming pool; as far as they know, a missing brother and the prostitute Christina are the only other people who exist in the world. There is, of course, no television allowed (they family only watches home videos of themselves); they are told, and believe, that airplanes flying overhead are toys. They have records, but they are informed that Frank Sinatra’s voice is the voice of their grandfather, and Father translates “Fly Me to the Moon” as a message from beyond the grave about the importance of family togetherness. And they have been living this way for a long time; although their age is not given, the kids are all sexually mature and could be anywhere from their late teens to mid-twenties. With no stimulus or purpose to their lives beyond following their parents’ absurd rules, the children’s emotional growth has been stunted; they still play with toys and invent games—like who can keep their finger under a stream of hot water the longest—to pass the long days.
Understandably, kept in a state of enforced childhood, they grow into immature, bored, and unfulfilled adults. Son tells of a dream he had; there’s nothing to it, because his restricted world doesn’t contain enough elements to build a fantasy from. Obvious to everyone except their parents, the children miss something in their lives, and it’s not just sex. They fight over toys or imagined slights, and like kids, they lash out at each other, though with adult force. Like little children, they lie to their parents to escape trouble; but because they’re recycling fables that their masters originally told to them, they’re easy to catch in a fib. At least once, this leads to a humorously unjust result, when Father is forced to go along with the youngest girl’s ridiculous lie to keep the illusion of unseen enemies prowling the grounds at night alive.
On occasion the children learn a new word or concept by accident, by reading a label the parents have left lying around, or through something Christina lets slip. The parents then step in to redefine that word or concept, but even the most careful parents cannot completely control what their children are exposed to. The plot, as opposed to the leisurely exploration of the setting and concept, begins when contraband from the outside world finds its way into the compound. Exposure to the simplest of ideas undermines the intricately tailored web of lies and omissions the parents have created; the eldest daughter starts to wonder, for example, what it might be like to have a name. (Father, who has surrendered his own name for the sake of stressing his familial role rather than his individuality, does do one thing for the dog that he doesn’t for his children—he gives it a name. The kids are simply referred to as the eldest, the youngest, the boy). Once new concepts and horizons are opened to the daughter, it is impossible to keep her under daddy’s control. Even the slightest glimpse of a world outside the four walls of the compound stirs a kid’s curiosity and rouses her out of her domesticated torpor—but Father has a steely resolve, backed by a quick fist, and he’s dedicated to holding the family together. The parents have given the children hope for a potential way out of the house eventually, although they count on the fact that it’s a vain one. According to family legend, a child is old enough to leave the home and face the dangers of the outside world when his or her dogtooth falls out. Of course, even then its unsafe to venture outside except in the confines of the car—even Father stays safely inside his vehicle to drive a few feet to fetch a toy that’s been thrown over the fence. If the eldest daughter can negotiate these two hurdles, though, she may be able to leave the home and see what lies outside the walls.
Many people find Dogtooth disturbing and shocking, but their reactions are slightly out of tune with the actual content of the film. There are five incidents of violence, and perhaps two or three sex scenes that are disturbing, in context. Arguably, every single one of the “disturbing” scenes is necessary to the plot, although it is debatable whether they had to be delivered with this level of explicitness to have the same impact. (The one gambit that is clearly gratuitous is the brief clip of hardcore porn, which I suspect was inserted out of misplaced love of audacity and in an attempt to cop some of the bad-boy cred of obvious influence Lars von Trier).
It’s not actually the shock scenes that disturb people, however. Though Dogtooth is clearly a film for adults, there is less violence and bloodletting than in a typical R-rated horror movie, or even an average action flick. What people find unsettling are the underlying concepts—that parents would treat their children as lab rats, and that someone might lie convincingly and arbitrarily about absolutely everything, no matter how trivial—and the matter-of-fact unease with which these ideas are delivered. The children are innocent victims, but they are also horrifying to watch, inhuman. They don’t react like real people (because they haven’t been allowed to become real people). Their facial expressions are off, their behavior patterns are unpredictable and unfamiliar, they even dance awkwardly. Their parents’ coldness is chilling, and the lack of explanations for their plans and schemes is frightening. It all strikes at hidden fears, suspicions and resentments of parental deception we still carry deep within us. Dogtooth could have been made under the Hays Code, and it would still disturb people because of its ideas—and because it’s weird.
Dogtooth is a parable about control. When Father delivers the worst curse he can think of, it is “I hope your kids have bad influences and develop bad personalities.” For him, the greatest horror is not for his offspring to be unhappy or fall short of their potential, but to be influenced by forces outside of his control. Ominously, he and Mother appear more upset when a child is disobedient than when one is presumed dead. The specific form of control exercised here is parental control, which most of us can relate to. We’ve all been disillusioned by finding out that our parents aren’t perfect and have lied to us; we’ve all discovered there is no Santa Claus. But it’s impossible not to extend the metaphor of total control over thought exhibited here to the political arena. When the dog trainer tries to convince Father not to take his mutt back early, he asks him, “Do we want a guard who will respect us as his masters and do unhesitatingly whatever we ask of him?” Father wants exactly that of his children; he wants them docile and compliant. The concept that the parents deliberately teach their children the wrong meanings of words recalls the newspeak of Orwell’s 1984, and the imaginary enemies supposedly prowling around outside the compound walls are reminiscent of the imaginary wars fought in that dystopian world to enforce a sense of desperation and camaraderie in the populace. The film reminds us of propaganda machines in Nazi Germany that drove an entire nation insane, and of Communist dictatorships that rewrote history books to try to keep people ignorant for decades. The idea even plays on our deep epistemological misgivings that we ourselves could be brainwashed. Everything we’ve ever been told, by our parents, our institutions, our governments, even by ourselves could be a lie; like the children, we’d be living a nightmare, but we wouldn’t even know it.
Dogtooth starts by redefining common nouns in an absurd way. Since we know only a tiny slice of the family’s private vocabulary, this immediately puts us on edge. We realize that we might decode the dialogues that follow differently than the characters do, a suspicion that’s soon confirmed when the youngest daughter asks her mother to pass her the “phone” when what she really wants is the salt shaker. But Dogtooth isn’t concerned with abstruse linguistic philosophy or with meaningless insights about the arbitrariness of signifiers; it’s concerned with reality. Not with the mechanics of how we come to know and understand reality, but with the deep emotional and moral impulse to break through lies and deceit. We immediately sense and feel that what the parents do to the children is wrong; even if the kids are well-fed, protected, and perfectly happy in their walled estate, we know that they have been abused and degraded by being kept apart from reality. We hate the Mother and Father for imprisoning them, and root for the offspring to break through the walls that surround them.
Lanthimos’ scenario here reminds me of the one invented by his ancient Greek ancestor, Plato, with his Allegory of the Cave. In Dogtooth, the children are kept in an isolated villa and systematically lied to, so much so that they see images of real things (airplanes) and through the trick of perspective believe that they are mere toys no bigger than their hands. Plato’s allegorical prisoners were kept chained from birth, their fields of vision restricted so that they could only see shadows passing on the walls of the cave, never seeing things as they really are. For Plato, if one of those slaves ever escaped his chains and saw the world as it really was, the sudden light would hurt his eyes and he could hardly believe or understand what he saw; but it seemed to the philosopher the greatest form of good and the highest human duty to break free from the bonds of ignorance. Dogtooth exhibits the same faith that genuine knowledge of reality, however painful it may be to obtain, is worth fighting for—whether we live chained in a Cave, or on a country estate.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…one of the darkest, most unsettling, weirdest films of the year.”–The London Times (contemporaneous)
“..a conversation piece. Though the conversation may not proceed quite into the depths of psychosexual analysis that ‘Dogtooth’ seems to invite. Your post-viewing discourse may be more along the lines of: ‘What was that?’ ‘I don’t know. Weird.’ ‘Yeah.’ [shudder]. ‘Weird.'”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
DOGTOOTH – the original Greek site (translated into English), with cast bios, stills, review excerpts, etc.
DOGTOOTH the movie – this site from American distributor Kino contains the same information as the Greek site, along with a director’s statement and an alternate pressbook
IMDB LINK: Dogtooth (2009)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Festival de Cannes – The Dogtooth page at the Cannes film festival site, including the trailer, a link to download the press kit, and links to articles on the film
Dogtooth: Interview with Yorgos Lanthimos – Revealing interview with director Lanthimos by Pamela Jahn of Electric Sheep magazine
The surprising Greek film winning fans abroad – A briefer interview with the director from CNN’s “Screening Room”
DVD INFO: The Kino DVD (buy) contains a few extras. The print is anamorphic widescreen, and looks radiant: the Mediterranean sunlight glows on film. There is the trailer and a photo gallery. Of more substance is the 12 minute interview with director Giorgos Lanthimos and three deleted scenes, the coolest of which features the three siblings singing along to grandpa Sinatra’s rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” in painfully broken English. No commentary is included; since there’s no real obstacle to such a feature, it may be being reserved for a future special edition.
Dogtooth is also available on Blu-ray (buy) with the same features.
(This movie was nominated for review by multiple readers. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)