Dogtooth ★★★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“What should we call this game?” “I don’t know.”

As Tolstoy observed, each happy family is alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Which is simply another way of saying that all families are different, since any group of people forcibly assembled is bound to be visited by some unhappiness. Power dynamics, personality conflict, even random chance bring with them discord and disharmony. How to weather the storm—that is the question.

It’s a question parents must ask themselves daily. The parental mandate to serve and protect, with its disturbing authoritarian overtones, is fraught with difficulty. One must shield her children from harm while also preparing them to face that harm as self-sufficient adults. One must help his children grow with a goal that they might no longer need his help. The internal contradiction and careful balancing is enough to make one’s head spin.

As a soon-to-be parent, I think of these things quite a lot. I want nothing more than to provide for my son a pathway to becoming a happy, well-rounded, good person, which sounds easy enough on paper, but which in practice I know will prove more challenging than I’m sure my limited imagination can grasp. I promise my son that I will do my best, and hope that my best will be good enough.

I think of these things quite a lot as a child of other parents, as well. Parents who took perhaps not the best fork in the childrearing road.

From grades four through twelve, I was homeschooled. But I come not to decry the villainy of homeschooling. Like any task, homeschooling can be handled well or it can be handled poorly. And in my case, at least from an academic standpoint, it was quite successful. I was a precocious child, a voracious learner, and being able to learn at my own pace and gobble up book-learning worked quite well for me. Indeed, when I started college I was so used to a self-directed educational approach that the academic adjustment was fairly easy. As the desire to provide a high-quality education was the stated reason for my parents’ decision to homeschool, it was a rousing victory.

Stated reasons, of course, only take one halfway at best, much like book-learning is at best only one piece of life’s puzzle. Among the responses to the bittersweet loss of parental authority and the encroachment of the outside world’s troubles, one possibility is to erect a wall. Shut off socialization and human contact and integration. If a family is a city-state in miniature, one can choose autocratic isolationism as the governing principle. For my mother, a—how best to put it—difficult woman, it was an appealing option (an option that my father, a truly lovely man, unwisely co-signed in his lifelong bid never to rock any boat).

And so it was that, after the first few years of my life and save for a brief interlude at junior-high age, I came to be shut off from the world. The internet was not really a thing, nor would it likely have been a thing in my house in any event. Cable, which we had when I was younger, was excised and television watching in general was constant but fiercely censored. Athletics and other communal activities, with which I had previously had involvement, were removed from the picture, not to reappear until my sister (nearly eight years my junior) became invested in them. We rarely even went to church, despite being intensely religious (ours being a tasty mélange of the most rigid beliefs of evangelical Christianity with a heaping dollop of Catholic guilt). We were not shut-ins—there were trips to the grocery store, to restaurants, to the craft/fabric store (oh, the endless weekend hours spent in Hancock Fabrics, eyes glazing over, the sweet kiss of death so very far away). But as far as human interaction of a non-transactional nature went, it was fleeting and, once established, was quickly exterminated.

But movies—movies were always there. Not nasty modern movies with their cursing and their bloodshed and their acknowledgement of sexuality as part of the human experience. (Remind me to tell you sometime how I—a homeschooled child with no access to cable, internet, dirty magazines, friends, or older siblings/cousins, in a household where sex was the ultimate taboo—learned about the birds and the bees. Or better yet, don’t.) But Production Code-era movies and things otherwise rated a soft PG—those were an integral part of my life. They provided a window into so many worlds and so many activities of which I had no part and of which I would have otherwise had no knowledge. Books gave words and facts and information, but movies gave moods and feelings and, well, life. Although I didn’t precisely know it at the time, movies were my lifeline because movies showed me what my day-to-day existence did not.

You see, as I matured I slowly came to realize, as do all children, that there were things about my upbringing that were...odd. It’s a universal experience—your parents go from unimpeachable giants to fallible human beings; your world goes from normal by default to comparatively unusual. But in my case, the differences were not idiosyncratic but rather were fundamental. Even in the most whitewashed, hermetically sealed cinematic universe, people had friends with whom they socialized. People left the house to go play in the park or to ride their bike. People lived. I wanted to live, too.

So while the academic transition to college was smooth sailing, the social transition was one made with gritted teeth and a hyper-awareness of how terribly maladroit I was. Trying my best to stuff years’ worth of awkwardness and maturation into a compressed timeframe was clumsy and inelegant and at times embarrassing. I was stunted and maladjusted (whether I am currently any less so is an open question), but—crucially—I knew that I was stunted and maladjusted and that, if I simply put my mind to it (and forced myself through the paces I should have trod years before), I needn’t continue to be so. The movies could only do so much—watching and doing are dramatically different—but they provided a key frame of reference. Foundering in a new, unfamiliar situation? Fake it, based on some cinematic touchstone, until you make it. As friend, confidant, and advisor, film was an invaluable ally, because film offered what I most needed—hope and inspiration.

It is perhaps based upon this history that I am so very fond of Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ brilliant, bleak psychological horror-comedy about the dangers of parental despotism. While Dogtooth smartly leaves itself open to any number of interpretations, from a critique of the family as a governing social unit to political allegory, one obvious target is the folly of parental over-protectiveness and the danger of parental manipulation. It is funny and startling and disorienting and frightening and altogether remarkable.

Lanthimos’ first masterstroke is to keep his family’s members unnamed—a canny move toward thematic universality that is also subtly unnerving in its oddity. Having kept their three children locked away from the world in their rural home, Mother (Michele Valley) and Father (Christos Stergioglou) give their kids lessons purposely designed to hobble any outside interaction. Audio tapes define “motorway” as “a very strong wind.” Mother tells Son (Hristos Passalis) that “zombie” means “a small yellow flower.” Housecats are said to be the deadliest of creatures, roaming outside the high perimeter fence and ready to tear apart any child who crosses its boundaries. As if the world were not already a strange and scary enough place, Mother and Father deliberately seek to make it wholly alien.

Not that there is any intention of letting Son, Elder Daughter (Angeliki Papoulia), or Younger Daughter (Mary Tsoni) outside the compound’s fence or locked gate. Only Father leaves to go to his factory job and procure necessities for the family. The children may not leave, they are told, until their canine tooth has fallen out, and may only drive a car—the only way to obtain safe passage out, they are told—once the tooth has grown back. A basic understanding of anatomy and physiology belies the fallacy of these claims, but as the children have only their parents as a gateway to such knowledge, they accept what they are told.

Sadly for Mother and Father, their children are no longer actually children. Apparently in their late teens to early twenties, odd bits of defiance and self-generated reasoning skills and hormonal urges have slowly begun to erode the iron parental grip. When Father brings home a security guard from his factory, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to provide periodic sexual services to Son, things are bound to go downhill quickly—a foreign organism cannot be introduced without inciting change.

Lanthimos drops the viewer into his sterile, dreamily surreal world without any guideposts, letting the audience sort out for itself what exactly is going on. As it slowly dawns on the viewer just how deeply dysfunctional and cruel the parents’ games are, the laughter of defining “sea” as "a leather armchair" gives way to dread and horror, both at the implications of such an insidious way of living and at the cataclysm that must surely be approaching. There is no spoon-fed orienting exposition, just a sick realization of the warped reality in which these individuals operate.

Dogtooth’s set design and costuming, together with Lanthimos’ framing, drive home how the bizarre can become innocuous when no other reference points are available. The house is almost entirely white, lending a cold, clinical feel to the prison in which the parents conduct their experiments. The children generally wear nothing but their underwear around the house—something not uncommon for small children, perhaps, but something usually abandoned well before the onset of puberty—while mother generally wears the same housedress day after day. They are trapped in a grotesque loop that, to them, appears utterly ordinary. Lanthimos’ camera, meanwhile, is largely static and set at odd angles, cutting off parts of the action and the actors—a reinforcement of the children’s perspective, allowed to see only what another dictates.

As Christina infiltrates the home, following the most matter-of-fact, unenthusiastic sex imaginable with Son, she seeks sexual favors and fulfillment from Eldest Daughter—a parasite seeking power and a strategic social advantage. (The epidemic of barter-based licking this introduces to the sisters is one of the film’s most hilarious, and most disturbing, running jokes, demonstrating the children’s complete infantilization with respect to sexual matters.) Like Bart Simpson’s frog decimating Australia, Christina’s actions have vastly unintended consequences, especially when Eldest Daughter demands Christina’s rented videos (Jaws and one of the Rocky pictures) in exchange for the next bit of tongue-on-“keyboard” action. Eldest Daughter, the oldest and already the most rebellious of the children, imagines that her dogtooth is loosening, permitting her freedom. The movies, with their vast landscape of newness and otherness, only exacerbate the enthusiastic desire for escape—a desire which Eldest Daughter cannot keep to herself, sparking predictably bloody consequences.

Dancing awkwardly and barking to ward off those monstrous housecats and readying themselves for Mother’s impending birth of a dog (non-negotiable) and two more kids (avoidable, so long as the children improve their behavior), the children are so stunted as to be almost inhuman. But the very human will to live and experience and be self-determining will out, regardless of the obstacles thrown in its way. Mother and Father instituted a feedback loop, casting the world as foreign and terrifying and making the children unready for it, thus ensuring that they cannot be permitted to face such a foreign and terrifying place for which they are unready. But outside inputs—like movies—can disrupt the system. Life cannot forever be held at bay. Thank God for that.

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