'Dogtooth' Explores Disastrous Child-Rearing Methods

San Francisco Film Society/Courtesy

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The Greek film "Dogtooth" takes the cliche expression, "It's a dog-eat-dog world out there" to task by allegorizing the domestic sphere as ripe breeding ground for unspeakable horrors. In a satire of the darkest humor, writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos combines the shocking sociopathy of Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" and Lars von Trier's socially critical cinema to create a striking and surprisingly sensitive commentary on family life.

The wealthy parents of three unnamed college-aged children have been instilled with a fear of the world just beyond their property's walls. In their miseducation, the offspring have learned a familial "newspeak" where any referents to the outside ("sea" is a leather armchair, the "telephone" is a saltshaker) have been appropriated to keep their thoughts confined. Days are filled with bizarre games of endurance and physical conditioning exercises - "preparation" for the day they will be mature enough to leave the home.

Glittery stickers are bestowed for a job well done or a competition won, and as the single form of positive reinforcement, the rewards only intensify the already extreme sibling rivalry. Airplanes are an element outside the parents' control, therefore, toy airplanes are planted in the garden to create the illusion that the vessels frequently "fall." Symbolically, the plastic trinkets are the most coveted possessions, leading the Eldest daughter to slice her brother's arm with a large knife in order to regain her prized plane.

This story of home schooling gone wrong is all the more disturbing for the ambiguity of intention behind the parents' conspiracy. A desire to protect their kids from harm and keep them sheltered seems unlikely considering their methodical fear-mongering plots are concocted while they watch a secret video of hardcore pornography, entirely unaffected by the scene on the screen or their own cruel tactics. The film accosts the viewer's sensibilities on multiple fronts, but Lanthimos' narrative is presented with earnestness. Rather than overtly demonize the sociopathic parents, the piece focuses on the three children who are direct products of an alarming environment which has rendered them unfit for anything else. By the heartbreaking conclusion, the viewer is both horrified and hopeful that these unnamed "zombies" never discover the truth.

Of course that is impossible. Even if the parents have seemingly thought of everything that might disrupt their carefully orchestrated enclave, inevitably, the sole individual allowed into their safely removed world is the source of contaminating knowledge. The female "security guard," appropriately named Christina, is offered as a physical "sacrifice" to their son's sexual urges. The father carefully selects her to gratify his male progeny, and for all the precautionary measures taken, she brings the first item into the home that disrupts the siblings' carefully monitored system of "exchange." After Christina teaches the Eldest daughter about the "value" of favors, and that licking another's body parts is "worth" something, things go terribly awry. The patriarch assumes his fully godlike, dictatorial role by reassigning Christina's "task" to the Eldest and furthering the notion that Eden itself was a dystopia.

So when is a child ready to venture into the dangerous world? Only when the "dogtooth" falls out. How can they leave? Only in the safety of a vehicle. And when will they be mature enough to learn to drive? As soon as the dogtooth has regrown. By the end of this exquisite and tragic allegory, the Eldest desperately attempts to escape - a heroic gesture with an unresolved outcome - and demonstrates that by the time the canine resemblance is gone, so is any trace of humanity.

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