Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009
While cinema can be an effective platform for political expression, often it’s merely a comforting diversion. In every one of its 40-odd programmes, the Auckland International Film Festival has featured an impressive number of challenging and thought-provoking films, and this year’s festival was no exception. My preference is for films that don’t fully reveal themselves in a single viewing, films that need to be sought out and explored further. Alexei German Jr’s Paper Soldier (2008) epitomises such unfinished business, a treasure that ought to be seen more than once to appreciate its complexity and luxuriate in its considerable cinematic qualities.
While perhaps not in the same league, DOGTOOTH by Greek filmmaker Yorgas Lanthimos will reward return visits. It’s hard to recommend this film to viewers with delicate sensibilities (cat-lovers take note), but for those with a constitution for blunt intensity and crypt-dry, pitch-black wit, the film has much to say about social and political manipulation. As with Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), one can appreciate the ideas in the film without necessarily liking it.
I write the following on the assumption that readers have seen the film, so if you haven’t and don’t care to know more, you may not wish to read on. Those who have seen the film will recall that the plot follows a privileged family of three late teen/early twenty year olds (one boy, two girls) who live with mum and dad in a large fenced-in property on the outskirts of an unidentified town. They have been brought up to fear the world beyond the perimeter of their home, so no one leaves the premises apart from dad, an executive at a security-protected factory. We never find out what the factory produces, but the various blue canisters look ominous against the bleached industrial background (colours that subtly denote the Greek flag). The stark images of the factory suggest an enterprise dedicated to profit and power: a sprawling array of windowless buildings, silos, and chimneys, a building designed with no concession to environmental, visual or psychic pollution. The fear (and paranoia) the children live with is not entirely unfounded.
The only telephone in the house, which is hidden in the parent’s bedroom, is solely for mum to speak to dad when he is at work. This alludes to ideas about restricted access, privileged channels of communication, and the corporate control of communications technology. The parents shape their children’s understanding of the world by ascribing false meanings to objects and concepts: a 'strong wind' is a 'motorway'; a 'vagina' is a 'keyboard'; an 'excursion' is 'flooring material', etc. Disinformation is designed to keep the children ignorant and dependent, ostensibly to protect them, but primarily to control them and ensure their ineffectiveness in the ‘real’ world. But as the children listen to their pre-recorded lessons (learning by rote), their unease suggests that they are (on some level) aware that they are being lied to, which of course alludes to the sort of totalitarian political double-speak characteristic of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove-Wolfowitz-Rice-Powell tag-team.
There are no friends or wider family, although we learn that a fourth child (a boy who apparently left home before he was ‘properly prepared’) lives unhappily beyond the fence-line, enabling the parents to use him as a deterrent against disobedience. Some may surmise that the parents invented him, but the children seem to have memories of their brother. This could be due to the effectiveness of the lie, but it’s possible that something unspeakable may have happened to him. Either way, the parents use him to reinforce the impression of external danger and the safety of their controlling influence. They tell the children that a cat (a dangerous child-eating predator) killed their brother, so the family are trained to bark like dogs to scare cats away. All of this alludes to the way in which enemies are exaggerated or created (often by fanning xenophobia) in order to pursue covert political or economic agendas and increase tighter security and control. “If you stay inside,” dad says, “you will be protected.” Or, to put it another way, “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.”
The family have no contact with (or experience of) the world beyond their high-fenced boundary, except for Christina, a security guard at dad’s factory who is brought in once a week to service the sexual needs of the boy (after which she procures a little sexual attention for herself from the older girl). Apart from Rex (the family dog, who is away at ‘guard-dog school’), Christina is the only character with a name. The fact that family members are nameless signals Lanthimos’ allegorical intentions. It might be a stretch, but as Christina is the only non-family member we see within the ‘compound’, it’s tempting to read a touch of metaphor into her name (Christ-In), particularly as she brings ‘truth’ into the house in the form of subversive art. While films like Rocky and Jaws are hardly subversive, their impact on the family certainly is. As a result, Christina is relieved of her duties with swift and violent precision, forcing the parents to elect a 'safer option' – incest. One of the daughters is duly prepared.
When the family sit down to watch videos, it turns out to be their own home movies. Mouthing the dialogue as they watch, they’re obviously familiar with the tapes and clearly enjoy them. The scene is a caustic swipe at the social engineering power of Hollywood movies and the pacifying nature of populist cinema in general: formulaic, repetitive, affirming, non-threatening examples of how to be hard working, obedient, law-abiding consumers. This idea is accentuated later in the film when dad goes to see if Rex is ready to resume his position as ‘home/land’ security. He’s told that it takes time to train a dog. “Every dog is waiting,’ says the expert, “for us to show him how he should behave.” On the walls are portraits of dogs in erect poses that express obedience, vigilance, strength, loyalty, and submission. “We want dogs to do whatever we ask of them without hesitation. Do you understand?” The question is directed towards the audience as much as it is to dad.
One subtle detail in the background is a portrait of dad that the boy is painting, which gradually takes shape as the film progresses. It indicates the extent to which dad is pivotal to the family’s worldview, recalling portraits of (usually fascist) political leaders. Eventually the eldest (and most inquisitive) daughter starts to come undone. Her new knowledge of the world (via Christina’s videos) has unlocked something in her that compels her to act. According to the parent’s theory of everything, a child is ready to leave home when the ‘dogtooth’ (or eye-tooth) loosens and falls out, so she decides to speed up the process with a small set of weights. It isn’t pretty, but it earns her a passkey to freedom. Alas, her fate is likely to echo that of her long-lost brother.
If it isn’t obvious from the above description, Dogtooth is an allegory. It reflects the totalitarianism Greece once endured (and that may still linger in a similar way to the fascism that stalks Europe in the work of Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke), and it’s also a metaphor for any form of ideological control (religious, political, etc). The entire film is an allegory for dysfunctional propagandised societies, a commentary on the acquiescent selective ignorance engendered by the privileged.
And yet, it has to be acknowledged that the 'transgressive' character of the film feels calculated. By comparison, there is no allegory to unravel in Seidl’s films. He doesn’t allude; he shows. His films confront us with 'the real', even at their most fictitious. Perhaps Lanthimos wants it both ways: to have his allegory taken seriously while courting controversy for the sake of PR. Maybe not, it’s hard to say, but one can sympathise with those who feel that Dogtooth is strident, self-congratulatory, and hyperbolic. But for the me the jury is out, and I wait with some enthusiasm to see what Yorgos Lanthimos does next.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader