Part of our continuing partnership with the online film journal, cléo. Every month, cléo will be presenting a great film to watch on our video on demand platform. In conjunction, we'll be hosting an exclusive article by one of their contributors. This month Julia Cooper writes on Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, which is available to watch starting today in the US and Canada.
Dogtooth starts with a game, as many forms of manipulation do. “I say we play a game of endurance,” suggests the youngest of three teenaged siblings. They will each place a finger under the hot water of the tap, and the one who lasts longest wins. Sitting in their underwear in a white tiled bathroom, the teens hear the click of their tape player: the cassette dictating their vocabulary lessons for the day has just finished. As the sisters and their brother iron out the rules of engagement, the camera of director Yorgos Lanthimos frames the game’s ringleader (played by a wide-eyed Mary Tsoni) in a close-up shot and rests with her. Sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her blonde hair parted to one side and held in place by a barrette, she is a Greek Margot Tenenbaum—aloof, sedate, inscrutable.
As the film unfolds, her siblings (Angeliki Papoulia and Hristos Passalis) don’t prove to be any less cryptic. But to be clear, this is not the darling world of Wes Anderson. Lanthimos pulls us into what feels like an alternate universe, but, bewilderingly, one that looks just like the world we already know. The lives of these kids (known only as the Eldest, the Son, and the Younger Daughter) orbit around Father (Christos Stergioglou). He is an “all-knowing” patriarch who, with the help of his wife (Michele Valley), has raised his children in his image. Together they live in an lush, Edenic compound surrounded by soft, dusty mountains with vast blue skies above—but, it is only ever Father who gets to leave. The siblings exercise daily, swim in their inground pool, and eat together as a family each night. This paradise is just like the original: it is only heaven if you don’t know any better.
“Mom, what’s a pussy?” asks the Eldest over dinner. “A pussy is a big light,” answers Mother. “For example, the pussy is switched off, the room plunges into darkness.” The Younger Daughter smiles contentedly at this answer; the Eldest and the Son look up at the ceiling fixture, arranging the new word in their vocabulary. With Pavlovian obedience, the siblings have grown up believing everything their parents have told them, and without access to the world beyond their gated garden, they still believe every word. Words and things are ascribed new meanings by Mother and Father; salt is known as “telephone,” “zombies” are cute yellow flowers, and the scrawny stray cat that wanders into the yard is a lethal security threat. They understand the outside world as a vicious place that will take years of survival training to one day encounter and endure. It is only once they lose a dogtooth, that strongest and sharpest of teeth, that they will be ready for the challenge.
The teens have been conditioned to endure pain without complaint, to obey their parents unquestioningly, to understand men as naturally superior to women, and to distrust everything they don’t understand. Father brings home a female security guard from his work to satisfy his son’s sexual appetites. When her visits stop, the parents look closer to home for a substitute. Consent is not a word in their lexicon. As such, teenage rebellion doesn’t take its regular forms here. There are no hurled insults, no temper tantrums directed at anyone in particular, no tearful breakdowns. Instead, aggression comes out in sharp moments of violent revolt that are detached from motive or cause, and these bursts of angst go unpunished (rather, it is the moments of quiescence that are disciplined).
Dogtooth, by some queer magic or cinematic frisson, is funny. As the siblings perform a recital for their parents, the Eldest breaks the routine with an eclectic pop culture pastiche of dance moves. Reminiscent of Flashdance, Napoleon Dynamite, and the final scene of Beau travail all at once, her dance plays like a stilted exuberance—she is bursting at the seams of her being, but with what, she couldn’t say. Likewise, the parents’ psychological moulding of their children makes them into the caricature of a happy family—a smiling tableau as they listen to Frank Sinatra—and there is, consequently, a calmness, a false sense of equanimity, to their torture. Unlike most people their age, these cloistered kids haven’t learned that—to put it mildly—parents don’t always know best. Like some kind of emotional mirage that confuses pain for pleasure and fear for power, the hazy universe of Dogtooth suggests it’s easier to be enmeshed in someone else’s idea of the good than to try to work it out yourself.