79. DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

“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

Recommended

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.

Still from Dogtooth (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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)

“…nothing in this weird, watchable, blasé black comedy from Greece stays innocent for long.”–Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITES:

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”

Guest Review: Dogtooth [Kynodontas] (2009) – Kevyn Knox’s September 2010 capsule review, written during the film’s festival run.  Also available in a slightly different version at The Cinematheque.

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.)

16 thoughts on “79. DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)”

  1. this is in my top 5 of all time. big call, but this film changed my ideas about cinema in huge ways. not to mention, this is an incredibly visually beautiful film. watch it with the sound down a second time, and you become completely sucked into a strange, pastel-tinted world.
    could rant forever about this.

  2. I think that this movie’s weirdness really only comes from the characters’ inscrutable familial paradigm, which we consider culturally abnormal. As stated by Plato’s allegory, normality and strangeness is defined by a person’s worldview. We, as outsiders look into their house and consider them weird; whereas I’m sure the kids think of themselves as typically normal (having no other point of comparison).

    Although Dogtooth presents an exaggerated version of cultural divides, I didn’t think this would actually make the list. The characters come across as bizarre only because of their atypical upbringing, which we judge against our own sense of correctness. Of course, there is an explicit element of horror (the monstrous parents’ abhorrent decisions), but what it boils down to is that the kids are “weird” just because they live differently (different language, different family structure, different educational experience, different societal expectations, etc).

    That confuses me as to what kind of weirdness gets on the list. I was expecting the 366 to be comprised of audio-visual non sequiturs, abstract scenes with metaphorical/allegorical significance, nonlinear narratives, and other miscellaneous art house experimentations. While I can see how the children in Dogtooth are weird, I think they’re more like the children of Elisabeth Fritzl, who are more tragic than weird.

    I guess I feel this movie presents bizarre social dysfunction in a manner that is not as cinematographically weird as other films (like David Lynch’s filmography, for example). If weird subject matter is sufficient for inclusion in the list, despite lacking in weird presentation, then that muddies the demarcation point of what’s weird for this site, and what’s not. Would Todd Solondz’s films be candidates for the 366 (’cause for me personally, his characters are all just as weird and messed up as the people in Dogtooth)?

    1. Wrath, You are right that Dogtooth is not that weird (it could even be considered a work of strict realism). But with 366 movies to add, we like to use a generous definition of weird. Here are three justifications as to why I included Dogtooth:

      1. It passes the “grandma” test. When considering a movie for the List, I imagine showing the movie to my grandma (God rest her soul); if at any time during the imaginary screening she leaves the room, muttering under her breath, “that was weird,” I include the movie.

      2. Dogtooth is covered under the sliding scale principle as explained on the “About” page: “Sometimes, if a movie is very weird, it will make the list ahead of a better movie. Sometimes, if a movie is very good, it does not have to be quite as weird.”

      3. Popular demand. So many people have asked me to review this movie that it’s clear a significant number of readers believe it fits beside the other films on the List.

      A Todd Solondz movie could potentially make the List; I considered reviewing Life During Wartime but decided against it.

    2. Re: “… with 366 movies to add, we like to use a generous definition of weird …”

      Okay, actually that’s a great reason. I can see how quickly tiring it can be if one were to watch 366 movies in a row, all of which contained similar levels and types of weirdness. I suppose this movie would serve as a “breather” of sorts, allowing a break from audio-visual strangeness, while maintaining elements of the bizarre and grotesque.

      Having said that, I’m still unsure if something like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring would now be a valid candidate for the list. Just like Dogtooth, it presents a culturally different upbringing, resulting in characters that behave in what would seem to be non sequiturs (one character ends his existence for seemingly no reason, and another character hauls a stone up a mountain in what seems to be a Sysiphean allusion). However, unlike Dogtooth, which is negative and destructive, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is positive and productive, and still presents mundane reality with unusual points of view (a character consumed by fire is heavily implied to continue on when the camera subsequently zooms into a serpent nearby — but there is no FX or narrative that hits you over the head saying, “Hey, something has transpired!”).

      Maybe Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring will fail the “grandma test”. Its strangeness comes from its cultural differences from Judeo-Christian societies, and much of its oddities are implied via juxtaposed imagery (the dialog in this film is very sparse; I’m pretty sure everything vocalized by all characters could easily fit on one 8.5×11 sheet of paper). Also, with its overall positive sentiment, I doubt someone would walk away muttering about how weird it is, haha!

  3. I really did love Dogtooth. But, the main reason behind the motivation is that it reminded me of another foreign classic which is overwrought with despair and hopelessness, Salo.
    Transgressive qualities aside, the tone of complete hopelessness is almost completely alike. Plus, the setting( a closed off private estate owned by rather wealthy authoritative figures) brings in mind the mansion home of the Italian libertines.
    Also to be noted is that both films have the youth transformed into animalistic beasts, suffering from isolation from the outside world, while still remaining obedient to their masters(which ultimately causes self-destruction in both films.)
    I thought it was an interesting film comparison to bring to mind. As always, loved your review, and felt absolutely delighted when seeing the comparison to Plato.
    Great job.

  4. If I may be a tad controversial, I recently got around to seeing Dogtooth, based on cinema ads I’d seen, which made it clear that there was a fantastic idea involved. And I HATED it!

    Yes, it’s weird. But is it any fun at all? The concept of the youngsters learning strange, irrelevant definitions for words they might somehow overhear is massively underused – there’s the potential here for weird use of language comparable to the “nadsat” of A Clockwork Orange, but all we really get is one brief gag about the Son thinking a zombie is a small yellow flower (though since I don’t speak Greek, it’s possible that I missed a few nuances that didn’t make it past the subtitles).

    There is more ugly, joyless sex than I especially want to watch (in fact, there’s no sex that really seems like fun in the entire film), and the mercifully brief porno clip almost had me jumping out of my seat in a “WTF is THAT doing there???” moment. I suspect that the director couldn’t get his amateur cast to go quite that far, and inserted that clip just to prove that he was willing to show absolutely anything, even if he couldn’t persuade his cast to actually do it.

    And here’s a little technical point to consider. When I see a film where a lengthy shot in front of a static camera is so badly framed that the actors’ heads are partially or entirely cut off, I may briefly wonder whether this is some sort of clever directorial trick to make it all seem weirder, but if there’s nothing in the entire film to indicate that a good cinematographer is in any way involved, I have to assume that this was simply lousy direction from a guy whose cameraman barely knows where to point the thing! (See also any film directed by Doris Wishman, who apparently suffers from an unfortunate combination of hysterical blindness and narcolepsy.)

    This movie could usefully be compared with The Vanishing – I refer to the vastly superior Dutch original, Spoorloos – because both films feature a controlling father-figure who is obviously a psychopath, and who in fact behave and even look surprisingly similar – is there a hint of influence here, maybe?

    Yet Spoorloos has a genuine thread of black humour – witness our anti-hero’s initial bungled attempts to abduct a woman – that Dogtooth utterly lacks. I was particularly troubled by the whole business about the cat. The idea of adult or near-adult people being terrified of an ordinary domestic cat conjures inevitable visions of the rabbit from Monty Python And The Holy Grail, yet, presumably because if you’re a technically inept director, editing footage of real cats, who are notoriously difficult to persuade to do anything whatsoever on cue, huge problems arise the second a cat enters the film, almost nothing is made of this. All we get is a brief scene which, given the production values of this movie, looks to me very much as though they actually killed a real cat (though at least obviously not in the clumsily shot fashion implied).

    As it happens, I like cats. There are weirder, funnier, more entertaining ways that scene could have been shot by a better director which would not have involved genuine animal cruelty – and I refuse to believe that a film this technically crude suddenly upped the ante just to give us a totally convincing shot of a fake dead cat that we’ve just seen alive. Actually, the cat’s death serves no real plot purpose at all, and indeed undermines the myth of cats being invincibly lethal. The director is simply saying: “Hey, I don’t care what I show! Real hard-core porn? Check. Real disemboweled pets? Check. How radical am i?”

    This film left me with a very bad taste in my mouth. I think that, although the idea was intrinsically good, the execution was unimaginative, technically clumsy, and unforgivably mean-spirited. I genuinely had the feeling that I was watching a film made by a person who lacked empathy with other human beings to a pathological degree, and honestly didn’t know it. The kind of person who would kill a cat just to show irrelevant but suitably controversial real animal guts on camera.

    Also, I don’t get the feeling that the director likes women very much. Or indeed men. Though he probably likes both of them more than cats. Perhaps one day there will be a remake which is genuinely weird, but this film is merely an ugly, grubby, and seriously inept treatment of a great idea. It’s the sort of dreck that people sitting in arthouse cinemas at midnight kid themselves is important because of all the aforementioned lapses of taste, decency and logic, while not really having a particularly good time.

    Oh, and by the way, the Grandma Test is invalid. Would the old dear be happy to watch the explicit close-up footage of a spike being driven through a man’s eyeball in Terminator 2? I doubt it. So is that automatically a weird movie?

    Sorry to go on about it, but I feel quite strongly that “weird” movies should in some way be genuinely enjoyable to watch. I’m not necessarily talking about light-hearted fun – Eraserhead is no “fun” at all, yet clearly a work of genius. I think in this case the boundary between worthwhile weirdness and low-budget pretentiousness is becoming a tad blurred. And they shouldn’t have killed that cat.

    1. Dr. Orloff, I definitely appreciate your detailed counterpoint and I sympathize with a lot of it. When we encounter “extreme” movies with disturbing images, I think we should be asking ourselves whether the message and artistic intent justify the content. For me the answer here is “yes,” for you it is “no,” and that’s fine.

      I am not convinced, however, that there is any real animal abuse in the movie. The BBC censors were convinced that the animal cruelty in the film is simulated, and I see no reason to doubt their judgement.

  5. I’m surprised to see so much discussion of this movie with no mention of Haneke, who seems like the most direct influence. If you had told me this was an undiscovered Haneke picture, I would absolutely have believed you. Lynch, on the other hand… there’s something too figurative, too symbolic, to really link him to such a ruthlessly deadpan film as this one.

    In response to Orloff, I’d argue that the stable camera, occasionally cutting off heads or cropping the frame awkwardly, is a stylistic decision… or more precisely, an anti-stylistic decision. After all, both photographic composition and the blocking required to keep actors in the frame are stylistic treatments, and this film clearly wanted to establish a sense of absolute fly-on-the-wall realism. It was not arbitrary, and it was not the work of an inexperienced cinematographer. It was a very precise and purposeful anti-stylistic treatment.

  6. I’m baffled at how one review after another will go on talking about this film while carefully avoiding the big, obvious word in screaming red neon letters: Religion. This film is an atheist’s view of religious upbringing.

    Religions also invent words like ‘Sabbath’ and ‘communion.’ Religious Fundamentalists also homeschool their kids. Religions also tell tales of a hell and a devil to scare the kids straight. When Religions cloak women in burqas or protest gay marriage legalization by demanding “How will I explain that to the kids?” – That’s denying reality. Sure, the Santa Claus part is obvious, but think also how surreal Bible stories appear to a six-year-old. Consider the cross, symbol of Christianity, is an execution device and yet it’s a decorative motif. How strange would it be if we all ran around with little golden electric chairs on necklaces?

    Doesn’t even seem so weird now, does it?

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