Totalitarian household: review of “Dogtooth”


Directed by Giorgos Lanthimso

2009/Greece, NR yet in U.S./NC-17-like ratings on other countries, 94 min.

Giorgos Lanthimos’s “Dogtooth” captures the physical and moral damage that occurs when what is perhaps the ultimate insult is visited upon otherwise healthy human beings: that of being held in physical and mental slavery under the pretense that it’s for their own good.

While this form of bondage seems absurd at the individual level, it is all too common at the national, under different names: the totalitarian state, the security state and so on. It is notable that this film comes out of Greece, once ruled by a military dictatorship. The director, however, in several interviews stated that the film is not about Greece or any other specific country, but about a form of control overall.

All one has to do is to replace the Kims in North Korea or the mullahs in Iran with a quietly lunatic mother and father, and the captive populations with three extremely homeschooled siblings and the result is “Dogtooth.”

While the worst aspects of this control are undoubtedly the physical and emotional pains caused to their people, perhaps the most insulting is the behemoth absurdity that all this is done for the protection of those enslaved – a point “Dogtooth” makes abundantly clear. The parental characters, who live a middle-class life, have chosen to raise their children, a boy and two girls, in total isolation. Told that anywhere beyond the perimeter of their property is mortally dangerous, the children (actually, one has to remind oneself, youth of about late high school or early college age) live their life in ignorance of the outside world. Even “watching a video” means watching older home movies.

In one scene, the youth find a cat and, having never seen such a creature, they kill it with garden shears. The parents use this as a pretext to reinforce the notion of the outside world’s perils, explaining to them that cats are but one of many threats on the other side of the fence. The father cuts his clothes to pieces and covers himself with fake blood upon returning home, explaining that he was the victim of feline savagery and that a fabled older brother, foolish enough to have left their home before birth, had been killed by the feline beast.

One can see the obvious parallel: the North Korean state, personified by the Dear Leader as a doting parent, warns not against cats outside of its borders, but “American jackals.” There, as in any other totalitarian society, to keep the given order, the truth must be stretched far beyond the breaking point. The point is exemplified often by Lanthimos. Throughout the film, the children see airplanes and hope for them to “fall.” Not actually wishing for an air disaster, or even possessing the knowledge of what such a thing is, they believe that planes sometimes fall out of the sky onto their lawn, only to be picked up and used as toys.

In an Orwellian twist, words themselves are redefined by the parents: whenever an outside word is heard, the parents quickly create a definition. Thus, a “zombie” is a small flower and a “carbine” is a white bird.

While Lanthimos does finds humor here and there, the tone of the film’s realism is one of banal dreariness, broken by bouts of the repulsive as we see the moral degradation inherent in such an order. But as wretched as the lives of the characters are, and as depressing as the film is, Variety‘s review got it wrong in comparing Lanthimos’s work to that of the Danish director Lars von Trier, whose films are increasingly nihilistic.

Quite the opposite is the case with “Dogtooth.” Underlining what we’ve seen recently, for example in news from Iran, the film portrays a totalitarian system fraught with instability: the household order nearly disintegrates when one of the daughters acquires copies of “Rocky” and “Jaws.” And while the parents are able to quell the initial turmoil through a form of loving violence common in, say, Saddam’s Iraq, the entrance of this outside culture puts a crack in the system’s foundation. Coerced with ignorance and brute force into bondage, the kids nonetheless stumble towards and sacrifice for eventual freedom.

Lanthamos draws a far more hopeful, and realistic, picture of human nature than von Trier: While the Iranian regime has banned public displays of dissent, arresting, and likely torturing, hundreds of protesters, over the past few months, the people of Iran have begun to rise against theocratic rule.

Be warned, this film is not for everyone: full nudity, abuse, graphic sex and incest round out a cavalcade of the perverse. But good art is often ugly art: the sheer horror portrayed in Picasso’s Guernica does nothing to undermine its greatness. Those who have the stomach to sit through “Dogtooth” will find a better understanding of, and a deeper animosity towards, the totalitarian.

Photo: Scene from “Dogtooth.”