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Let me give you a thrilling glimpse behind the scenes of the Headstuff film department. About once a month, we get sent a list of notable film anniversaries in the month ahead, and we volunteer to write about the ones that interest us. On this month’s list was Dogtooth, the sophomore outing from Yorgos Lanthimos. I offered to write about it, but unbeknownst to the Headstuff editors (until right now) I have tricked them! Bwahahaha! You see, I am a shameless narcissist, and this article is really going to be all about my favourite subject – me me me me me.
As I am writing this, I have never seen Dogtooth. I have it rented on YouTube, and will press play in a few minutes. I volunteered to write about it because Yorgos Lanthimos is important to me. I saw The Lobster when I was 20, volunteering behind the bar at a little indie cinema in exchange for being allowed to stay and watch the films for free. It was, really, the film that changed my life. Or, at the very least, the part of my life in which I watch films.
I have always desperately wanted to be cool. I am not cool. I never will be cool. Striving to reach that unattainable coolness goal, like that fellow in Greek myth who can never quite pluck the delicious fruit from the tree, is the animating concern of my life. When I was much younger, I attempted to achieve this by being one of the lads and being good at sports and banter. Unfortunately (although, probably fortunately in reality) I’m really quite bad at sports and banter.
When I hit maybe 15, I recalibrated my hipness radar and decided to devote myself to acquiring impeccable opinions on films, books and music. The issue which I had in all three categories, for many years, is that lots of the critically acclaimed canon didn’t resonate with me. There are a lot of consensus brilliant films that I just find long and boring. I have a short attention span. I’m shallow, and weird.
For about five years, I watched lots of films like Pulp Fiction, didn’t truly love them, and pretended that I did, hoping I could construct a winning personality out of doing so. Then I saw The Lobster, and ooooohhhhhh man, did I love The Lobster. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Its bone dry surrealism, its gleeful, self indulgent weirdness, its moments of uncompromising nastiness. The Lobster was that film for me. We all have one. And Yorgos Lanthimos is my guy, and will be forever. I support him in the way some people support sports teams. I was thrilled by the freight train success of The Favourite. I was entranced by The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which is just one of the most insane cinematic rides I have ever been on.
And now I’m finally going to watch Dogtooth. I hope it’s great.
Dogtooth! It’s pretty great.
For those who haven’t seen the film (like me about 100 minutes ago), Dogtooth chronicles a Greek man, two Greek women, and their Fairly Odd Parents. The parents keep them trapped inside the home, feeding them a string of bizarre lies about the dangers of venturing outside, and claim that they are only mature enough to leave once they’ve lost one of their titular teeth. Much of the movie devotes itself to giving us compelling and extremely disturbing glimpses of the unhinged quasi life the nameless adult-children live.
Eventually, the oldest sister stumbles across cassette tapes of Hollywood films, brought into the house by a female security guard who is paid by the father to have sex with his son. She barters with the guard, obtaining the tapes in exchange for performing oral sex on her, which the son isn’t comfortable doing. Having procured the tapes, the sister becomes fascinated by the outside world, and… well, you can probably imagine that there are consequences to this.
Dogtooth is the most lightly plotted of the major Lanthimos films. The chaotic twists and turns of The Lobster are absent. It has the feeling of a slowly intensifying nightmare in common with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but it doesn’t feel like it’s the story that propels it in that direction. Instead, it’s just the accumulation of weird scene upon weird scene. There is an awful lot in the movie that doesn’t go anywhere in particular, like the children fighting over a toy aeroplane, or the father ripping his clothes and smearing himself in fake blood to convince his offspring that cats are fearsome predators, or the incessant incestous undertones (and, occasionally, overtones).
Yet Dogtooth is only a little over 90 minutes long, and none of it feels extraneous. Every scene feels precisely calibrated to heighten your unease, to add another facet to the quiet depravity of this family. It’s the Lanthimos film that has given me the least pure enjoyment, and is not one I will rush back to watch, but I admire what it achieves and the way it goes about achieving it.
For obvious reasons, it’s hard for me in particular to not put Dogtooth in the context of what Lanthimos would go on to do. For example, it’s fascinating to see the way his ultra-distinctive style of dialogue plays out in this film, the way the characters come out with deeply strange sentences in an eerie, detached monotone. This is the first of his films I’ve seen where it feels entirely appropriate, considering the, erm, unconventional way the children have been raised. They literally do not have names. They cannot identify each other in that most basic of ways, and their inability to do so is the root from which the rest of their linguistic idiosyncrasies spring.
There’s a cool idea thrown out there multiple times in the film where the parents give the children incorrect definitions for words – ‘the sea’ becomes a chair, a ‘pussy’ becomes a big light, a ‘zombie’ is a small yellow flower. It would have taken a herculean, Clockwork Orange style effort to make the characters speak the incomprehensible dialogue they should be speaking if their parents had committed to this for their whole lives, and it mostly feels like it’s deployed here when Lanthimos wants a cheap laugh. But it does highlight the power of even individual word choices in constructing the sense of unease that pervades his film.
The offbeat, detached dialogue feels like a technique tailor made for this story, which makes me curious why he would then deploy it again in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and to a lesser extent in The Favourite. It’s particularly jarring to see Farrell’s distinguished doctor communicating in such a stilted, uncanny fashion in Sacred Deer. All the characters in Lanthimos’s worlds, no matter their status, can trace their affliction back to these three broken Greek kids and their domineering parents.
There are other similarities. The sudden shocking violence of Ben Whishaw slamming his face against a table to make his nose bleed in The Lobster flows from the sudden, shocking violence of the father beating his eldest daughter savagely with a video cassette taped to his hand. And also from the sudden, shocking violence of him thwacking the security guard unconscious with a whole fucking VCR player. The heightened noise of the impact lingers with you. Yorgos Lanthimos is not a director who wastes moments of violence. Every blow is highlighted. The sounds of objects meeting human bodies are put against a background of eerie silence.
One of the things I struggled with while processing Dogtooth is what it all meant. It is a very bleak and uncomfortable fable about the power that the parents retain on their children, well into adulthood, by limiting their exposure to the outside world. If it had came out in 2019 rather than 2009, I think a lot of critics would have leapt on it as yet another Trump/Brexit satire, and perhaps Lanthimos should be commended for being way ahead of his time in that regard.
In fact, this ten-year-old movie has the most interesting portrayal of FAKE NEWS that I’ve seen since 2016. We all recognise by now the curious dance that Trump and his supporters perform together, with the former just spewing out whatever obvious nonsense he wants to on any given day, and the latter eagerly lapping it up because they’ve just decided they like him and won’t let anything stop them.
To view Dogtooth as a completely prophetic movie in that regard, you’d have to take a more benevolent and yet simultaneously patronising view of Trump’s supporters, as wide-eyed children clueless about the outside world, and wholly reliant on a demagogue’s interpretation of it. But there are moments that do have a really uncanny resonance today. Look at the father’s ‘othering’ of cats, ludicrously portraying them as ruthless monsters, lurking somewhere beyond the borders of the home, threatening the children’s very way of life. The family at one point have to form a human wall on the driveway, and bark like dogs on their knees to ward them off. Of course, you’d have to be painfully naive to assume that attitudes towards immigration in 2009 in the U.S or Ireland or the U.K were at all healthy. Maybe it’s just depressing to note how much things stay the same.
Despite containing a lot of what would become familiar Lanthimou tropes, Dogtooth still feels utterly unique amongst his movies. It’s arguably his strangest – and think about how much ground that covers. Despite its concise length, it spends more time than any of his other films reveling in its own oddness. It doesn’t do this in a way that feels self indulgent, but with a confidence that this is the best way to tell this bizarre tale. It’s a horror film, a comedy, and neither of those things. It’s hard to summarise. You probably shouldn’t wait another ten years to experience it, if you haven’t.