Dogtooth (2009)

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos


Dogtooth is a tough watch.  It’s an incredibly uncomfortable, even viscerally disturbing depiction of the life of an abusive man and the family he leaves behind at home.  Part of the alienating effects between the characters and the audience comes from the fact that the characters have no names.  They are treated more like pets, and none of them are allowed to leave the house.

The father works at a factory, and he lies to his coworkers about why his wife is never seen.  She’s in a wheelchair, he says, and she doesn’t want any visitors.  The film never pries into his psyche, so we never understand why he lives this way or why he lies about it.  How much does the man know about this psychopathic behavior?  We don’t know.

The story mostly follows his three adult children, two women and a man.  It’s unclear how old they are, but they all act like children.  As a matter of control, the father teaches them new words but purposefully misleads them.  When they see a plane overhead, he has his wife throw a toy plane into the yard which the children chase after, believing it to be the plane they just saw above.  When they watch movies, they only watch their old home movies.  When their father plays them a song sung by their ‘grandpa,’ Frank Sinatra, he translates the English lyrics incorrectly, making the children think the song is all about family.

It’s a tough hang.

At a certain point, this absurdity becomes funny, particularly as you start to anticipate their strange behavior and cringe before it happens.  There’s a subplot about a woman named Christina, whom the father pays to sleep with her son.  When Christina tries to get the son to perform a certain sexual act for her, and the son refuses, she turns to his sisters to receive this pleasure, promising to give them a present in return.  In a pretty funny scene, she asks one of the daughters to perform this act, in exchange for a headband.  “But I already have a headband.” “Yes, but this one sparkles.”

Eventually the father learns what Christina has been doing, and he beats her.  He also beats his daughter with a VHS tape.  There’s a scene in which the son violently murders a cat, which the father tells them is a dangerous animal that eats children, and of course they believe him.  The father tells the children that their other brother, a man we’ve never seen but the children believe resides on the other side of the fence, has been murdered by one of these dangerous cats.

In another scene the father dumps a few fish in the pool and waits for his daughter to tell him about it so he can go hunt them.

The father is in control of his family unit, past the point of sanity.  Where so many movies might be about the effort to keep the family together (“family is all that matters”), this movie is all about the perverted, dark side of a single family, completely detached from the outside world.  If there’s a broader point to be made, I’m not sure what it is.  I guess it’s that a family too focused on itself is a bad thing?

If you guessed that there might be incest, you’re right.  Once Christina is out of the picture, the brother turns to his sister to fulfill his sexual appetite, and the scene really takes its time to play out.  It’s some pretty uncomfortable stuff.

The father tells his children that they cannot leave the home until their dogtooth (canine) falls out.  One of the daughters thinks her dogtooth might be coming loose.  The other daughter tells her that it’s not.  Later that first daughter will take a small weight and bash herself in the mouth three times to get rid of the tooth.  I haven’t had that hard of a time watching a scene in a long time.  It’s bloody and disturbing, and the daughter smiles throughout.  Then she hides in the trunk of her father’s car.

When her father realizes what’s happened, he looks for her in the immediate vicinity of the house while the rest of the family, on their hands and knees, bark like dogs to scare away any possible man-eating cats.

The father eventually drives to work, with his daughter in the trunk.  The final shot is of the trunk, as we wonder if she’ll get out.  It’s a long shot, and the trunk never opens.  The end.

I guess it’s a good thing we interact with the broader world, right?  My main takeaway from this film is that you can become too insular, whether with yourself, with your family or just with your own ideas, like living in a self-constructed bubble.  That could be your political party, a religious institution, anything philosophical, even being surrounded by fans of your favorite sports team or being too concerned with civic pride.  None of it really matters, because you’re probably wrong.  We’re all wrong.  We’re just an accumulation of ideas and beliefs that could run amuck if we’re never kept in check.  So we all need that person or those people or that Alexa robot thing to tell us when we’re wrong.  It’s why I surround myself with friends who remind me that I’m not as funny as I think I am.

Dogtooth is bleak and eventually hilarious, the type of comedy that comes from your brain looking for any way out after you’ve been forced to stare at something like this for so long.  Maybe that comedy is madness, but at a certain point, once you’re acquainted with the tone of the film, you start to find the humor in the absurdity.  Like Lanthimos’ recent film The Lobster, the premise is at once terrifying and hilarious.  At first it seems like an indictment of our culture, of where we might end up, but then the supposed realism turns in on itself, and once you’ve caught up to it, you can appreciate the weirdness.  It’s like meeting someone with a dark sense of humor.  Their jokes at first might not seem like jokes, but once you understand the way this person talks, recognize the dryness of their delivery, you can manage your expectations and laugh if you think it’s funny.  And I found Dogtooth funny, just like The Lobster.

The entire film was shot on a 50 mm lens, and oftentimes the frame lingers for an entire scene but isolates parts of the body.  When people stand, we may only see up to their shoulders.  The effect puts them at a distance from us since we’re not able to read their emotions on their face.  They all speak with such lack of emotion (like in a Robert Bresson film), that you need to see them to understand what might be going on inside their heads.  And since we often don’t, we’re not given any reason to relate to their plight.  This isn’t a story about suffering characters, people we might empathize with.  It’s a story that’s meant to make us look at them like they’re odd, because they are.  And maybe we recognize how distorted our own world views might become.  Where do we get our information?  Is it checked?  If these characters are so weird, might someone see us as weird?  These are some of the thoughts I had while watching this peculiar movie.

The other effect of showing many of the characters standing, their heads out of frame, is to remind us that these are adults who have outgrown this space, like a college student returning home to find that his feet hang off the edge of his bed, or a salmon in a fish bowl designed for a handful of goldfish.  This is a home bursting at the seams.  The father doesn’t express much grief or worry about whether he can keep this family together as the children get older and become slightly more curious about the outside world.  The father is a fascinating, disturbed character of course, but he’s a side character in this movie.  His behavior is never explained, nor should it be, I suppose.  He’s a man set in his own, twisted ways.  And we’re all people set in our ways, for the most part.

Up Next: Faces (1968), The Hateful Eight (2015), Nadja in Paris (1964)

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