In a darkly humorous coming-of-age tale, Yorgos Lanthimos’ wickedly acerbic Dogtooth takes the institution of the family literally. Dangerously so.
Milk Tooth And Claw by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, Dogtooth is a claustrophobic island in a sea of sexual frustration, infantilised adolescents à la Cocteau and patriarchal tyranny. Not without an aniseedy whiff of Greek myth, its shimmering vistas of incest, self-mutilation and tyrannical father-king suggest Ancient Thebes or Corinth. But with a modern Athenian suburb as the setting for his internecine power struggles, Yorgos Lanthimos leads us down a scorching garden path.
Equally wry and disturbing, Dogtooth invites us into this Greek villa to witness the perverted dynamics of three grown-up children, played with charming naivety by Aggeliki Papoulia, Christos Passalis and Mary Tsoni. Now verging on adulthood, they have spent their entire lives confused, institutionalised and imprisoned in this family home. They have no names and are referred to only by age. With no identity to speak of, they are almost interchangeable. Denied possessions and the entire modern world, they cling to each other, asphyxiating in their airless rooms, with no friends, music, films or external influence. Instead, they are congealed in a state of ritualistic, repetitive role play, licking each other, quizzing each other on the one book they own (a medical encyclopaedia) and playing Who Can Keep Their Finger Under The Hot Tap The Longest? Yet despite the competitive bent of these vaguely self-destructive games, the sexes are equal. The pent-up siblings squabble, fighting tooth and claw to outdo each other and win points from the Father.
In Dogtooth, the Father is king. Lawgiver and executioner. He controls everything in his grasp and distorts the rest. Thus, for these holy innocents, ‘the sea’ is something you sit in and ‘telephone’ something you sprinkle on chips. Over the years the parents have had to instigate numerous elaborate deceptions, like leaving miniature “fallen” airplanes on the lawn in an attempt to fictionalise the chartered flights heading for Eleftherios Venizelos Airport. Meaning is corrupt. The children have been told all sorts of lies to protect them from the evils of the modern world; that the ground burns outside their home, that the Frank Sinatra LP they cherish is actually sung by their grandfather and that their absent elder brother lives on the other side of the fence.
Fascinated by the unknown world beyond, the children’s arrested development is matched only by the Father’s sadistic violence, selfish hypocrisy and brutal deceit. As the children climb the walls at home, the Father enjoys music on the radio in the car drive to work, mobile phone calls with his wife and even the occasional porno tape. Breadwinner and provider, he fastidiously removes all traces of packaging from the supplies he brings from the supermarket. He even procures his son a female colleague, Christina, to teach him the joy of sex, a lesson which is as absurd as it is awkward. It is only when the Eldest One starts to demand her own identity and freedom that The Law of the Father finds itself under threat.
Swapping treasured possessions for video tapes of Bruce Lee or Jaws, the Eldest One discovers a world going on outside. She discovers story. Unlike the aspic frustration and stifled yearning of her almost shamanistic dance, flailing her limbs to the point of collapse, she has become aware of her power to create her own narrative and in a defiant gesture of self-creation she starts to call herself ‘Bruce’. She is becoming wise to the flimsiness of the fearful lies keeping her prisoner, but still believes she cannot leave the family home until her dogteeth have dropped out. And so in a twisted Odyssean escape, ‘Bruce’ knocks her own canines out and braves the ground fire by hiding in the car boot.
The father, however, is no Polyphemus. His justice is not even blind. No dupe to his children’s rebellious rule-breaking, he enacts judicious punishments, whacking the Eldest One with a video tape when she is caught watching late-night movies. Or equally rhadamanthine, beating Christina to death with a video player for smuggling in the contraband video tapes. Brutal poetic justice.
More than just a grotesque family fable, Dogtooth is a hyperbole of family power dynamics and an adolescent jailbreak. Emulating her hero Rocky, ‘Bruce’ the underdog fights her way out, eager to cut her teeth on the brave new world beyond. But is she really ready? In an evasively open ending, we’re never quite sure who wins the final-reel bout. The lid to the car boot lid remains frustratingly closed.
Stifled still. Bruce’s story is unfinished. But even without a sting in its tale, Dogtooth is an otherworld to get your teeth into.