Fifth in the Short Responses To Things You Must See series
What we have in Yorgos Lanthimos’ very unsettling and very strange Κυνόδοντας [Dogtooth, 2010], the Greek film that has just been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, is a story of a kind of Eden. A perverse one at that–but what’s to say about “perversity” when the grammar of things in this isolated world that the film depicts has been turned upside-down to fit the needs of its maker?
The maker, of course, is the Father, a master manipulator who, together with the enabler Mother, keeps his three children–Older Daughter, Younger Daughter, and Son, all in their 20s–within the confines of a sprawling estate in an isolated Greek countryside. They don’t have names, they have no conception of what the outside world looks like, and they play and run around like children secure and uncurious about the world behind the high fences that surround their house. They have been taught all their lives to fear and avoid this outside world: it is a dangerous place where house cats roam and maul people–including their unfortunate younger brother who dared set foot outside many years ago and finally met a bloody end.
When the outside world does occasionally intrude, Father and Mother have built a system of lies consisting of a different grammar for things. The Son, for example, asks what a “zombie” is. And the Mother replies, “It’s a small yellow flower.” A “telephone” is a “salt shaker.” Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” is their grandfather singing, in a foreign tongue that needs translation, about his love for the family. The airplanes that fly overhead are toys that occasionally fall into their garden. Like benevolent caretakers, Father and Mother tell them that they are ready to face the outside world only when they will lose their “dogtooth.” When a cat gets into the garden, Son kills it with a pair of garden shears, and soon Father teaches them to protect themselves by getting down on all fours and bark like dogs.
That’s the iconic image we get of the universe in this film: the Father and his family bent over like dogs, barking ferociously. It’s a self-contained world built by Father’s creative manipulation–and by that count, they are all happy. Why wouldn’t they be?
But there are needs to be met. Mother and Father hire an outsider named Christine, a security guard at the factory the father works in, to come and do sexual favors for the Son. She does so without questioning this strange world, even when she has to enter the family compound blindfolded. But her entry to this world proves to be this weird Eden’s serpent. One day, after lackluster sex with Son, Christine propositions Older Daughter that she is going to give her a gift–a “phosphorescent headband”–if she licks Christine’s “keyboard,” the children’s word for the vagina. In the next visit, Older Daughter rejects Christine’s new gift of a hair gel–and forces her to give what she has found inside Christine’s bag: two videocasettes of Jaws and Rocky. Older Daughter watches these films in secret but soon surrenders them to Father–who proceeds to punish her by whipping her head violently with the videocassettes. Still, the Serpent has been let loose in this Garden. Older Daughter has a new game to play with her siblings–acting out, complete with memorized dialogue, the scenes from the films she has seen: she does the boxing scenes from Rocky and the hunt for the Great White from Jaws. Later, when she dances for Father and Mother’s wedding anniversary celebration, she moves feverishly not to the cadence of Son’s guitar-playing, but to an imagined soundtrack from some other film–Jennifer Beals’ audition dance from Flashdance. It is a dance of rebellion, a subtly played revolution for this young woman. For her, the contraband movies are the roots of her eventual enlightenment.
This film is Older Daughter’s story, about her awakening and about her escape. (Or is there an escape?)
What an unsettling film this is, and I appreciate it for the wide-ranging allegory that it is. In my use of Eden and the serpent, I obviously see a religious parallel to the story. But it can also be read as a take on real-life monstrosities as the Fritzl case in Austria where a father locks up his daughter in the basement for 23 years and makes her his sex slave. It can be read as a critique of Mediterranean family culture. It can be read as an attack against unquestioning adherence to “the way things are supposed to be.” You take what you will from this film–it is an original, a harsh and unflinching depiction of psychological realism that makes you question what you believe about the world you live in, and how we go about our lives knowing one set of grammar to understand things. But what if all of this is just a lie? What dogtooth must we lose to see things as they are? And are we at all willing to bloody ourselves for that glimpse?