Dogtooth (2011) - Essay

Dogtooth (2011)

You Say 'Pussy' I Say 'Bright Lights'


Dogtooth (2011)
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

I think courtroom dramas are, at their core, usually an exploration of language. Lawyers and plaintiffs and judges all just try to build up or tear down that thin but impenetrable facade of language. You say you invented Facebook? Well, I say you stole the idea from the two of me. Who's lying? Let's talk it out. Et voila, movie. The first time I saw "Dogtooth," the first twenty minutes seemed like a cold, bizarre string of banal conversations, but I should have known better! Everything is perfectly in its place, a whole world that just takes some getting used to. "Dogtooth" knows exactly what it is from the first moment. It opens on a tape recorder and the questions keep coming: a tape gets put into the recorder (what year is this? are the parents hiding technology from their kids or is this 1990? or have they just decided that tapes are more easily erasable, like dismissed evidence or ... ) a finger pushes the play button (can you remember if the finger had nail polish on it? if it were the younger daughter's finger, what kind of beautification do the parents allow them? she always seems the more curious of the siblings, so it might make sense she pressed ... ) and a woman's voice comes out and lists today's vocabulary words (is she a teacher? she sounds like an infomercial host) and "Sea" is a big chair ... "motorway" is a strong wind ... "carbine" is a white bird. OK. Yes, this might take some getting used to.

All the words have to do with exploration. I didn't catch this until I had one of my many conversations about the movie with friends, and like everything else in the film the vocabulary lesson is cut with a strictly logical joke: Sea ... motorway ... carbine? Like a rifle? Why the hell is carbine on that list? Every moment like this in the film raises ten questions, and the answers you can come up with are often hilarious. Come to find out, the parents have completely sheltered their children to the point where now, twenty or so years later, the kids have never left the gates of the front yard (so, you know, "sea" isn't in the house but a big chair is). This in and of itself is a high concept worthy of a Preston Sturges comedy: lock the kids away, see what happens. Et voila, movie. I can see Preston's opening scene now: dolly in on a crying baby, fade to the house, the parent's frantically worry about the modern world at large, they come to the hard but necessary decision to keep the kids away from immoral influences, then fade to twenty years later and the house is full of blank-faced, ill-equiped man-children. "Dogtooth" is great because rather than starting on this nugget of the joke, it unfolds in all directions all at once and often with conflicting emotions, and we have to keep up. And how does it unfold? The world builds itself from these questions: what was going through the mother's head when she tacked carbine onto that list? When and how did one of the kids stumble across the word? The possibilities are endless.

And I gotta say, it is SO FUNNY thinking about the possibilities. It's my favorite part of the movie. The parents have this kind of deadpan, surface logic to their decisions that is absolutely hilarious. Examples abound: How do you introduce a dog into the house? Well ... mom's pregnant with a boy a girl and a dog. If you behave, she won't have the kids and you won't have to share your rooms. But we'll hear no complaints about the dog. My favorite is the harpoon gun. The dad puts a bag of fish into the pool, which is then discovered by the daughter. He grabs his harpoon gun, swims around and hunts the fish. On first viewing, it seems like he's doing it to maintain alpha status and show the daughters that he can still protect them. On second viewing, I think dad just wants to use his harpoon gun. After all, it's gotta be tough having three grown kids in the house who never leave. He doesn't get out much, I'm sure. The movie is full of this stuff, and I'm sure by my third viewing I'll be seeing it strictly as a farce, which is very impressive since it is an extremely uncomfortable viewing experience the first time through. I was nervous the whole film. When's shit going to hit the fan? What's going on? Are those two people really having sex? Everything freaked me out, all the way down to the framing. Kind of like I was a sheltered child being led into a new, unknowable world. Hm. 

The inevitable punchline to a 90 minute joke: what happens when you release one of these freak children into the real world? Lanthimos, our director, leaves it up to us to decide. The eldest smuggles herself out, bleeding and swollen, in the trunk of the car. She makes it all the way to her father's factory, where he drives every day for work. And we end on the trunk. Ten more questions. Is she alive? Is she dead? A funny scene plays out in my head where she bursts out of the car, confused and runs around. When I wonder aloud if she's okay or not, my friend David brings his answer back to the hilarious surface logic: "I don't think she knows how to open the trunk." Winner!

The film is all about getting into the heads of these people you've never imagined before. And in that way, I find it very human and inquisitive and sometimes even tender. The dance sequence is the best depiction of child-brain-in-adult-body I've ever seen, sad and funny and totally the breaking point for the Eldest, which makes it even funnier. You can sit and wonder about the intentions of the father, and the answer comes right in the middle (it builds center-out, unlike Sturges): Dad tells Christina the security guard, "I hope your kids have bad influences and develop bad personalities. I wish this with all my heart." And there it is: I kind of get where he's coming from. I can see how it started as a benign enough thing, hoping the best for his kids, and how it got mangled and warped into this kind of self-perpetuating myth. Everything happens right there in that moment. The film becomes a metaphor for something bigger (whatever that perpetual myth you choose -- government, religion, blah blah blah), the origin of the whole thing is explained, and the whole thing will fall apart. 

Dad did beat a woman senseless, after all. All Christina has to do is go to her superiors and say, "You know that guy? He pays me to have sex with his son and he beat me with a VCR. You should look into that." Another funny hypothetical extension of this big "Dogtooth" world. I feel like that final scene when Dad pulls up, eldest in his trunk, and walks back into his factory building will be his undoing. Who could be waiting for him? Cops? Security? An angry woman? Any number of things. Come to think of it, to get in the factory compound he had to drive past the security booth. I wonder if Christina was there, and what the look on her face was? Did she stare at him, knowing silently who awaited him inside? Plus when they find his daughter wandering around ... ! That's going to be an awkward conversation, what with all the pussies on the ceiling.