Dogtooth (2009) – dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

Parenthood is so daunting to me. At some point, yeah, I’d like to have kids of my own. The trouble is, I know I’m going to make a million mistakes, and no amount of “Dear Theodosia”-inspired love will ever quell that anxiety. I can only give my progeny what I, with my limited life experience, believe to be right. And I’ll be wrong about so much, but hopefully I can do enough to prepare my spawn to take on the world.

Certainly, I hope to do better than the parents of Yorgos Lanthimos’s breakthrough Dogtooth—a film whose matter-of-fact weirdness is as pronounced as the deadpan hilarity that pervades the film. Dogtooth is a film of such specificity that one may find Lanthimos’s dark comedy to be alienating, or just a series of inscrutable events—hell, I even spent the first 20 minutes or so of the film convinced these characters were supposed to be visitors from some other planet. Dogtooth is not quite so bold. While Lanthimos doesn’t hold anyone’s hand, he doesn’t need to; the reality of the film is hardly unrecognizable. Dogtooth may feel confusing, but hides an embarrassing universality in plain sight.

At the center of Dogtooth is a family: A father (Christos Stergioglou), a mother (Michelle Valley), a son (Christos Passalis), and two daughters (the older played by Angeliki Papoulia, and the younger played by Mary Tsoni). We open on the kids, who aren’t really kids. They’re practically adults. Soon, though, we learn that they have no concept of leaving their home—which is a spacious layout hidden far outside the city. Only once their left dogtooth falls out can they learn to drive, and only by car can they travel anywhere else. These three are so far removed from society that, to learn about the outside the world, they listen to tapes made by their mother, giving them incorrect definitions to various words. Still, life has a way of breaking through. The kids have their own little economy. They trade small things of theirs for odd favors, unbeknownst to the parents. The son is visited by a young woman named Christina—one who works with the father—so he can experience sex. At dinner, they refer to a salt shaker as “the phone.” Abiding by this system earns one of the children stickers, and possibly a toy airplane; failure to comply is punished with firm corporal punishment at the hand of the father.

The politics of this family aren’t unique to Dogtooth. Oppressive patriarchy. Sexuality encouraged only for men. The old guard teaching the wrong lessons to newer generations. Confining the young to what has been established by their parents. Passive acts of rebellion that are done in secret. Reinforcement through violence and intimidation. Conforming to these rules, because this is all that is taught. How could anyone know any better, if they’re given no awareness of anything else?

Well, in the case of the film’s main narrative thrust, they learn through movies. The real hero of the film is the older daughter, often referred to as “the oldest.” She’s the curious, restless rule breaker, who’ll slice your arm if she can’t have the airplane. Her real awakening comes when, after Christina’s requests to be eaten out are rebuffed by the son, she decides to barter with the oldest for sexual behavior, which eventually results in Christina handing over a series of films. The only movies the family has ever had are the home movies they’ve made themselves. Yet, the oldest is able to talk Christina into letting her borrow these strange new artifacts. The oldest watches them in secret, and recreates them with quotes, with reenactments, and with a performance recalling Jennifer Beals. Rocky. Jaws. Flashdance. They immediately become the oldest’s life, until she’s ready to leave the house for good. Still though, she can only do so using the tools given to her by her parents.

Lanthimos is always laying out pieces of this world, and one is forced to ask themselves how this could be anyone’s existence. Scoreless, dispassionately performed, and clinically shot, Dogtooth normalizes this family. So, when something unusual occurs—or something unusual to the mechanics of the film—the impact is that much greater. Whether this is an act of violence, or a moment of incest late in the film, or hearing characters reference culturally significant films, these instances are immediately more pronounced when set against this deliberately sterile. Yet, even without these select bursts of chaos, Dogtooth is shockingly funny, not due to the oddities of the dynamic on display, but for the wry and, well, biting insight through such an absurdist lens.

Dogtooth isn’t just bitter; this picture is downright indignant. Yorgos Lanthinos understands just how toxic and cannibalistic humans are. He knows that we’re bound to implode, if we’re unambitious and complacent. Progress and growth is possible, but cannot be done alone. The real edge, though, is that this is everyone’s problem. Can we do this alone? Can the bold survive by themselves? Dogtooth ends on a lingering image—a sort of Schrodinger’s closing shot, something Lanthimos does at the close of The Lobster, as well—that deceptively poses a question of whether or not we, as people, can ever get better. The answer is always yes. We either take the initiative, where we change on our own, or we recognize those who are just as brave, and we help them together. We listen. We choose awareness of the world. The trick of defiance and indignation—the real motives of Dogtooth, really—is that they’re not that far removed from hope.

Rating – 9.2/10

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s