Dogtooth (2009)

DOGTOOTH, (aka KYNODONTAS), 2009. ©Kino International/Courtesy Everett Collection

To view Dogtooth click here.

Dogtooth has the surrealism of Buñuel, the scalpel of Haneke, the underground horror of a thriller without the splatter.” It’s hard to improve on that summation, made October 22nd, 2009, by the Greek film critic Dimitris Danikas in Ta Nea (The News), a daily newspaper of Athens. Dogtooth won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and snagged a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. In 2015, the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, would once again make waves at the Cannes Film Festival, but this time netting the Jury Prize there with Lobster and another Academy Award nomination (this time for Best Original Screenplay).

A cassette is inserted into a tape player. “Today the new words are the following: Sea… motorway… excursion… and carbine.” A young man (naked?) stands against a tiled bathroom wall taking note of the instruction. The tape continues: “A sea is a leather armchair with wooden arms like the one we have in our living room. For example: Don’t stand on your feet. Sit on the sea to have a quiet chat with me. A motorway is a very strong wind.” Now we cut to see that there is also a sullen young woman sitting in the same room wearing undergarments and hearing the same tape as it continues. “An excursion is a very resistant material used to construct floors. For example: The chandelier fell violently onto the floor… but no damage was caused to it… because it is made of 100% excursion.” A third young woman is introduced into the setting. She is also loosely clad and hearing the same instructions. “A carbine is a beautiful white bird.” She interrupts to say “I say we play a game of endurance.” They’re bored and things are going to get weird.

Dogtooth2009_01

We will come to know that these three characters are siblings: one brother (Hristos Passalis) and two sisters (Mary Tsoni and Angeliki Papoulia). They live in a secluded home compound somewhere in Greece. Their life is governed by a tyrannical father (Christos Stergioglou) with the complicit help of his wife (Michele Valley, she’s the one reading “the new words” on the tape deck). As we know from George Orwell’s book 1984, language is important and in the hands of a privileged elite leads to “Newspeak” and “thoughtcrime.” Michael Zelenko, writing for The Rumpus (June 25th, 2010) notes that after Dogtooth screened at the 2009 Reykjavik International Film Festival to a packed house, there was one person in the audience during the Q&A that opined that “the movie was a metaphor for welfare states and modern Europe…” to which the director replied:

The whole idea started with the family and we realized later that it could be seen as whatever else. It could work as an allegory, which is a word I don’t really like; I never think that way. It started off with, “What’s the future of the family going to be?” How can you narrow people’s minds by educating them—telling them, “this is the right thing, this is the wrong thing?” When we wrote the script and started working on the film it was obvious that, OK, this works in any system, society, relationship, country. It’s a microcosm.

In a similar vein, but a separate interview (Electric Sheep, April 5, 2010, by Pamela Jahn: “Dogtooth: Interview with Yorgos Lanthimos”) the director states:

It didn’t really start as a story about family dysfunction as such. In the beginning, I was wondering about family life and parenting in general and if the way we think about it would ever really change. But I had a conversation with some friends one day, and I was making fun about the fact that two of them were getting married and having children, because today many people get divorced and kids are being raised by single parents, so I said there was no point in getting married. But although I was obviously just joking, all of a sudden they got extremely defensive about what I had said. This made me realise how someone I knew and who I would never have expected to react that way freaks out when you mess about with his family. And that’s how I got the initial idea about this man who would go to extremes to protect his family, and who would try to keep his family together forever by keeping his children away from any influence from the outside world, being firmly convinced that this is the best way to raise them.

Interesting then, now, in light of recent events, how the Rorschach test continues. Will new viewers of Dogtooth see how easy a would-be tyrant controls his followers with his new words (“fake news” directed at journalists who disagree with him, etc.) or will they view the coddled children as helpless victims of an overzealous nanny state?

Lanthimos avoids clichés and hates it when a director pounds the audience over the head with what everything means by spelling things out. In Zelenko’s interview, he adds that he can enjoy something like the Bourne Ultimatum (2007) for its “pure action, no bullshit dialogue” but that he wants more from his audience: “We can’t all have the same answers for everything.” That means viewers can interpret the images they see however they like, but they should also keep in mind that the real inspiration came from over-defensive parents who sound a bit like the antecedents to the helicopter parents of today.

DOGTOOTH, (aka KYNODONTAS), Aggeliki Papoulia, 2009. ©Kino International/Courtesy Everett Collection

And what of the title? According to the over-protective parents, the children can only leave their compound once they have lost what the rest of us would refer to us a Canine tooth, our cuspids, that pointed tooth located between the incisors and the premolars. Lanthimos (continuing from The Rumpus interview) said he felt that the word “Canine,” within the context of how the parents were trying to control language, “sounded too intellectual in English to me – too scientific. Since there’s a lot of word play in the film, with dogtooth being a word that almost doesn’t exist, I found it worked better.”

For any squeamish viewers with little appreciation for the surreal, Dogtooth might feel like the movie is its own type of endurance game – due to some of the surreal horrors that occur (cat lovers beware). More alert viewers, however, will immediately realize that Lanthimos is playing with heady ideas that, almost a decade after its original release, are more current now than ever before.

Pablo Kjolseth

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2 Responses Dogtooth (2009)
Posted By Coolbev : October 3, 2017 9:35 am

As I’m sure we all know, a Balinese child cannot become a member of society until it loses the bestial point on its canine teeth. At a certain age, a priest traditionally files off the point, sure;y what this film refers to.

Posted By kjolseth : October 3, 2017 4:00 pm

I did not know about the Bali ritual, but see now that it is intended to remove six sinful spirits. Personally, I find pointy cuspids attractive and cringe at the idea of having my teeth filed. Perhaps you are right and this was a point (sorry) of inspiration for Lanthimos.

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