It will take a lot out of you to watch Yorgos Lanthimos’ second feature film, Dogtooth. But having the courage to complete the film, you will be rewarded with a pretty remarkable viewing experience. Dogtooth centers around an unnamed family living on the outskirts of a Greek city in a vast compound. The children are all adults, but disenfranchised to the point of not knowing the true meanings of words and completely unaware of telephones.
The stage is set that these are children terrified to leave their compound under the strict orders of their father. They cower and play like children, participating in a series of challenges like holding their breath underwater or an above-ground version of Marco Polo. It reminds me of the lethargic days of summer, where kids are out of school, with little stimulus and creating waves of routines to make the time go faster. But the games are commands, the children given stickers and rewards of choosing entertainment of watching their own home videos.
It’s impossible not to address the domestic abuse that the children suffer in terms of recent news stories. Every few months we read of another dysfunctional, sociopathic family that kept their children locked up under the guise of homeschooling, when in reality, it’s a lot easier to hide abuse when there’s no one at school asking questions. Though Lanthimos shows you no sexual abuse of the children by the parents, the children have no agency of their own. The walls of the compound are the extent of their world, and even within that there are invisible walls of terror. An imaginary brother, ostracized for his disobedience, resides on the outer wall of the compound, where he is sometimes teased and rewarded by the three children.
When the father starts bringing Christina over to sexually please his son, this also does not explicitly imply abuse – Christina does sleep with him willingly and is paid accordingly, but even the money isn’t enough to satisfy her. The dissatisfaction at lack of receiving oral sex from the brother forces Christina to proposition the eldest daughter. The eldest does not understand the sexual connection between the licking and the reward of a gift by Christina, but she does understand the exchange of goods from the outside world. Dissatisfied by an initial gift, she convinces Christina to lend her videotapes and that’s when the world turns for the eldest. She has finally been exposed to a real life outside world, in the videos of Rocky and Jaws. She has finally learned something on her own. When she tries to transmit these new experiences to her siblings, she is using a language that they don’t understand. They are frightened by her new approach to their lives. She is already off the compound. And even though the tapes are discovered and she is punished violently by her father, she has had a glimpse of the outside world.
It’s reductive to call Dogtooth a film about the power of movies, but the movies are the vessel to which the eldest finally makes her own language. That use of individual language manifests in the party scene, which is best described as if Lars von Trier directed The Royal Tenenbaums. The eldest is using her movie language, the parents show no emotion towards her obvious cultural references, but her siblings look further confused.
The eldest daughter, the earth-shattering Aggeliki Papoulia, has really begun to shine by the time the film turns to the party. Her concluding scene is one of the most graphic, hard-to-watch scenes I’ve ever encountered, but it was also the most liberating scene of the entire film. As much as it was grotesque to watch, it was absolutely stunning to realize that the eldest has finally discovered freedom.