The Collegian
Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Cinema in Retrospect: 'Dogtooth'

<p>Graphic by Lucy Stefani</p>

Graphic by Lucy Stefani

Editor's note: The movie contains depictions of childhood sexual abuse and incest. Confidential sexual assault resources for UR students include CARE Advocates, which can be reached at advocate@richmond.edu or 804.801.6251; Peer Sexual Misconduct Advisors (PSMA), at psma@richmond.edu or 804.346.7674; CAPS, at CAPS@richmond.edu or 804.289.8119; Virginia LGBTQ Partner Abuse and Sexual Assault Helpline (24/7), at 866.356.6998; Greater Richmond Regional Hotline (24/7), at 804.612.6126; National Sexual Assault Hotline (24/7) at 800.656.HOPE.

 The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

While Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 film “Dogtooth” is packaged as a dissuasive and perturbing psychological drama, it also serves as a visceral examination of media representation’s significance.  The film follows a family sequestered away in the Greek countryside. However, the seclusion is by the parents' design, as a means to retain total control over their children's lives.

According to the family’s purportedly universal rules, the children are bound to live out their lives within their walled-in property until the day that one of their "dogteeth" or adult canines falls out. Until then, every facet of their lives and world plays out according to their parent’s nefariously intervening will. Whenever information that might threaten their worldly conceptions arises, the parental overseers act quickly to drown its true semantics under the deluge of an ever-evolving web of ouroboric caveats and patchwork amendments. 

Every “threatening” new word, idea or event becomes definitionally euthanized in service of household security. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of their confines, however, is its demonstrated scale and durability – at the start of the movie, the three children are well into their young adulthood, aged to the point that their father starts bringing in hired help to satiate their likely carnal desires.

The film, however, makes an important clarification about the children’s abilities. The efficacy of their custody is not because they are unskilled so much as that they have been systematically denied access to conventional developmental opportunities. They are afforded daily exercise and practice — at one point, even shown to be referencing a biology textbook with assured comprehension — yet are only allowed to practice themselves in purposefully counterproductive metrics. 

Eventually, through ritual and repetition, the children become ultra-resilient in their assigned tasks, but the outputs of such are designed to be functionally futile, if not self-damaging. At the same time, however, parental chicanery is not the sole object of the film’s investigation. Rather, the film looks at how such practices of deceit work fundamentally against a subject’s self-actualization. Although the film doesn’t offer up an “antidote” to the presented homelife, it provides suggestive insights into how levels of systemic disruption might allow repressed peoples to better come into themselves.

The media offered by the household is a Frankensteinian window into reality — a choppy home video that suggests passenger planes sometimes fall from the sky as miniature toys or dubbed over jazz music which is morphed into a grandfather’s heartfelt familial serenade. Even the parent’s conventionally subversive pornographic films are retooled as video collections about large lamps. Conversely, the media of the only non-family member, a periodically hired sex worker, brings with her strange and fantastical foreign films. While the viewing experience for these are never shown, their arrival sets in motion the events which result in the film’s only demonstrable change to the family hierarchy. 

Whereas before the pool was a place to practice drowning and resuscitation, it is now grounds for bombastic splash fights as the siblings take turns being the shark from “Jaws.” The larger, and most important shift, however — and the one that anchors the film’s media messaging — is when the older sister moves to adopt a “Rocky” inspired personage. She begins by pantomiming one of the fight scenes against herself in her room, spitting out pomegranate juice as she pummels herself. 

Several scenes later, when meeting with her sister, she announces that from thenceforth she has a new name: Bruce. To her sister’s comments of nominal ineligibility, she states that anyone can have any name, but she will only respond this one.  In this way, the older sister's unyielding attachment to "Bruce" is emblematic of her movement into increasingly masculine or violent spaces, a process which ultimately allows her to escape. 

Her self-reclamation culminates over the course of the final family dinner when "Bruce" offers to provide the night’s entertainment in dance. Diverging from the previous mundane rhythmic patterings of tradition, she bursts into the sultry dance number from “Flashdance.” Her parents are appalled by the demonstration and call an end to the night. As a final moment of resistance, she escapes to a bathroom sink. After taking one final pause and looking herself in the eyes, she takes up the nearby dumbbell and smashes out her dogteeth, destroying the final hurdle to her self-actualization.

 For both the eldest daughter and the family, the main hazard presented by the foreign films is a transitory one — threatening to shift the known state of oppression into some unknown reincarnate. And, because of the degree of the confines, change is only reachable through by a total antithesis and violent dismembering. In this way, the daughter’s nighttime flight, and mirrored standoff, symbolize a material reversal in the film’s presentation. Until then, the film’s visual composition had been stiflingly sterile. Almost every shot was of an empty, white frame, inhabited by a centered talking head. Scenes were elongated past their normal end points and the camera often remained bolted in place. Through such, the frame itself had become a kind of isolation chamber, systematically singling out and boxing in characters.

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Therefore, the switch to a pitch-black night represents the antithesis to the clinical white inherent to world of the familial system. Similarly, while there were had been several shots with multiple people in them prior, the exact framing of the mirror at the end is importantly divergent from such. The company is not external but internal, wherein the reflected gaze represents an awareness of the companionship nested within the self. The joining of people within the system was limited, but so too was the discrete unification of the self.

Ultimately, the film seems to suggest that the electronic flicker of the digital screen can sometimes bear a sharper reflection than any mirror ever could. The movie spends a fair amount of time in the bathroom space where the mirror resides – even opening there – yet the reflected image doesn’t become illuminating until given external context. Because of the framing of the eldest sister’s moniker, it is defensible to say that she symbolizes a pre-transitory trans character. Accepting this or not, her journey to self-reflection is necessarily contingent on her widened awareness of and affinity with identificatory avenues. 

In a generalized sense, this suggests that when only one voice of media representation is allotted, many images of the self are operationally excluded, and that increased diversity of media consumption — regardless of its pop cultural leanings — can flesh out the understanding of the self. One should look beyond their horizons because they might just find the exact response to their lifelong invisible call for place, meaning or identificatory closure. Diversity of image and character are vital because even the unseen players need mirrors to shine on themselves.

Contact contributor Henry Skalbeck at henry.skalbeck@richmond.edu.

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