Special Interest: Dogtooth

In this feature we discuss pieces of special interest cinema that didn’t necessarily make it to the larger public sphere. Focusing on the differences afforded by independent and foreign studios, Special Interest seeks to draw attention to those that may have slipped by unnoticed.   

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– “The animal that threatens us is a cat” –

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Yorgos Lanthimos’ darkly subverted 2009 drama Dogtooth offers no easy answers. In this respect, and many others, this freakish tale of parental autocracy somewhat resembles a familial Haneke/Lynch collaboration. Luridly mundane, and disconcertingly grounded, Dogtooth’s merits lie in its delineated paradoxes – from moral interbreeding, to sanitised dystopia.

However, such mutual exclusivity emerges solely from the juxtaposition of the atypical, and the viewer’s own concept of what is to be accepted. Dogtooth‘s innate isolation forms an intensely focused microcosm of a controlled society. Moral systems, items of worth, and communal vernacular are comprehensively renegotiated due a selectively omitted notion of the outside world. Dogtooth first and foremost showcases the power of hegemonic propaganda and sovereign oppression, but in doing so, gives way to the destabilising significance of self-awareness  and intellectual independence.

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The film takes place inside a large family compound in the Greek countryside – outside of which the family’s three young-adult children have never set foot. As a result, both mother and father systematically manipulate their children’s understanding of the world beyond. In an effort to account for the possible usage of external “harmful” vocabulary, the children are routinely fed erroneous definitions of existing terminology; as such, phrases like “the pussy was turned off and the room fell into darkness” become a regular occurrence.

The children’s only real contact with the outside comes in the form of Christina; a security guard at their father’s place of business. Christina, aware of the the children’s isolation, and at their father’s behest, performs various sexual favours for the male child in exchange for petty gifts and monetary compensation. However, upon becoming dissatisfied with the son’s preference for intercourse, Christina propositions the eldest daughter, exchanging her glow-in-the-dark headband for the daughter to lick her “keyboard”.

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Upon receiving two prohibited VHS tapes (Jaws and Rocky IV) for her continued service to Christina, the eldest daughter begins to recreate famous scenes, and starts to emulate the characters within them – naming herself “Bruce” in doing so. Inevitably, the father discovers the tapes and punishes Bruce – later ending Christina’s former contract. As such, Christina’s prior duties fall to the remaining daughters. Visibly awkward throughout, Bruce ends the experience by quoting Rocky IV – much to her brother’s confusion.

Bruce’s new-found autonomy eventually begins to spread to the other siblings, bringing with it the capacity for independent thought and curiosity. In a world where planes are small toys flying overhead, and zombies are small yellow flowers, the siblings soon start to question their misplaced parental reverence.

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Dogtooth‘s formal elements tend to accentuate this sense of entrapment throughout. Via obscure, suitably tight framing, scenes become conservatively dispassionate – often mirroring the family’s own rather stilted demeanour. The reticently matter-of-fact way in which Dogtooth progresses on screen is likely its most amusing quality. The complete and total lack of expression by the family only serves to  further emphasise their absurdly comical deviation from the rest of society.

The family’s serenely impassive reactions to stimuli is however also one of the film’s most disconcertingly macabre features. The  children’s oxymoronically enthusiastic monotone,  awkwardly calculated eroticism, and  unsettlingly inane response to cruelty vehemently conflicts with traditionally established systems of empathy. It is in this way that Dogtooth highlights societal performativity, and in doing so challenges widely accepted modes of perception per its objective disunion with conventional behaviours.  

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Dogtooth‘s exhaustive renegotiation of standardised mannerisms and “universal” morality consistently treads the line between dismissively nonsensical, and distressingly invasive. The ludicrously incongruous notion of a community’s base economy being held in the form of personal sticker collections, suddenly enters much darker realms of absurdity, when payment for incestuous conduct continues to be as mundane as the purchase of a tape-measure. Within the compound money buys you licks, sex is just a physical purging, and lacerations are something to pass the time with.

Overall, what stands out most in regard to Dogtooth‘s general worth is its total disavowal of a wholly orchestrated agenda; at no point does the film yield to a pointed social critique. Well-established cinematic priorities are divisively reassessed in order to elicit as unbiased, and nonpartisan an interpretation as possible – however uncomfortable it may be. In short, Dogtooth is more than just a bizarre arraignment of modern society – it’s a personal indictment of artifice and affectation.

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Dogtooth (2009)

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