Bright Lights Film Journal

Youth, Love, and Dogtooth

With its downright molten tabloid scenario and (to put it delicately) genetically claustrophobic sensuality, the pleasures of Dogtooth might at first resemble our expectations of a splattery, art-house Flowers in the Attic. But Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos eviscerates the tender insinuations and off-kilter alliances of V.C. Andrews’ simmering schlock-psychosis, splaying entrails across torso in a bald, triumphant, Josef Fritzl-like promulgation of filial intimacy’s dark, insidious side. Focusing on the incalculably warped products of stringent, goldfish bowl-protective family values, Dogtooth locks us in a pale, closeted dream world where cats are vicious and fatal, plastic airplanes fall from the sky and into the grass to be competed for and then played with, the word “cunt” denotes a large lamp, and sex is a joyless mechanism for controlling, as well as occasionally regenerating, both genders. Moreover, wrangling free of this cruel and unusual cerebral battery requires undergoing an ironically old wives-y rite of fictional passage, when the canine incisors fall from their gums, the kids can leave the nest.

These aren’t your uncle’s jocular if ultimately supercilious pre-bunk time tall tales, these are the opiate narratives of the solitarily confined, attempts at fooling body and brain into numb, pliant solipsism. These are, indeed, implements of a scary, fucked up kind of parental love. And, as is evident from the baggily overgrown pre-adolescence of the three…(Victims, do we call them? Prisoners? Let’s settle for a noun that suggests the trauma of the former and the punitive aura of the latter-)…children who inhabit the brutal perimeters of their parents’ grassy compound, the manipulative measures eventually form icy, egocentric sluices where empathic worldviews should be. Sweetness isn’t entirely absent from this universe, but it appears as a sickly, dysfunctional manifestation of its usual self; after nightmares the twentysomething kids can hop in bed with mom and dad without a worry, and the father, presumably not wanting to deny anyone the supernal pleasure of Frank Sinatra, tells his son and daughters that the sound of old blue eyes warbling out “Fly Me To the Moon” is in fact their grandfather tonally pledging his heart to his offspring. But pop culture can only exist with impunity if it somehow contributes to the familial annals; otherwise it’s likely to get duct-taped to the hand of fate and shattered across one’s skull. And outsiders can only dare tread into this hidden fortress if they, too, surrender to the unspeakable preeminence of the nuclear bloodline, an ideological act that will likely require closing one’s eyes and lips and nudely prostrating in wait.

Despite the social awareness of the central scenario, however, there are few big ideas to be gnawed off of Dogtooth, the film is uncluttered by satirical jabs at the perversity of home schooling or equally disheartening latchkey foils that might reduce the implicit message to bromidic, “teach your children well…”-isms. We can glean proletariat angst from the grey factory where the patriarch is employed and the skeletal guard he pays to mate with his son, but these hardships refuse to congeal into anything resembling a motive, or an external environment upon which to build a humanistic moral; similarly, one of the most obviously scripted lines in the picture involves the condemnation of “wrong stimuli,” but the dialog swiftly retreats. Instead, Lanthimos’ steady, maddeningly anti-expository pace forces us to nervously trace a ghosted outline of the domestic jail until characters reveal details while venting frustrations or attempting unauthorized collusions.

In this manner the movie owes something to the prison-sans-break genre, there’s years of imaginary piss and vinegar leaking shamelessly from the inmates’ nondescript wallpaper, from their oily, paunchy father, from their shy, sunken, plaintive faces, from their lack of eyelash batting while crippling one another and bestowing blame upon imaginary creatures. The mise-en-scène likewise favors static, unbroken takes that facilitate the casual, glacial observation one might employ upon security monitors, with faces and bodies moving in and out of focus or fracturing one another with the frame’s hard, impartial edge. And yet the care and effort the guardians pump into their sheltering schemes and mis-educational tools are indicative of once-rational agape now stuck in obsessive-compulsory mode: Cassette tapes of dangerous words defined with innocuous alternatives (a zombie becomes a flower, and etc) are played daily, while we see a sizable guard dog being slowly, expensively trained off-site for additional stronghold support. The result of this heart-and-mind tension is less of a plot and more of a bedeviling; as the postures of both cast and camera grow more staid and mechanical, the pain indelibly seeps through them in prickly droplets of unprecedented unease.

But while the draconian mindgames encage the three luckless children within the strictly enforced aspect ratios of their own minds even more violently than within the four walls of their posh home, inevitable correlations to other merchants of misery such as Haneke and Von Trier feel more like horseshoes rounding their stakes’ sandy periphery than arrows soundly striking the genre bulls eye. Is it, perhaps, that so little of Lanthimos’ approach appears consciously playful by comparison? There’s no Funny Games-style winks raping the fourth wall here, nor are there any aphorist-intoning canids (the one animal we encounter meets a rather grisly, wauling end). To be sure, Dogtooth knows well the coldly observed sadism of Haneke’s director-versus-audience rounds of chess, and the slowly collapsing, self-mutilating clockwork of Von Trier. But the appropriations never feel self-consciously allegorical or exploitative; this grim gut-torking is an anaerobic exercise in psycho-thrill aesthetics with a Repulsion-like good-gone-bad mental dither at its creepily ichor-inflamed core. This might alone mark Lanthimos’ sophomore effort as a significant cinematic event, Dogtooth is an audaciously visceral statement that somehow avoids both flamboyance and gratuity, proving that on-screen shocks need not always be accompanied by a masturbatory aftertaste. Thinking back on AntiChrist, I imagine Von Trier and I smile; thinking back on Dogtooth, I imagine lines from Rocky recited soullessly as passive-aggressive post-coital threats and I shiver.