We spend roughly the first quarter of our lives cognitively developing. Immersed in our greater systems of education and society, we are constantly learning. Beyond our formal education years, we are consistently consuming information through an overdose of media and sensual experience. Much of the information we gain, whether it be a specific area of study, common knowledge, or even what we deem to be facts is often taken for granted. We feel confident with this information due to validation from peers who hold like-knowledge or due to validation from higher authorities who can confirm that the information you hold is in fact sound. While we hold others accountable for teaching us what we ought and we want to know, we willfully trust those in positions of power and authority to provide us with the truth believing they have our best interest in mind. Yorgos Lathimos questions this system of learning in his film Dogtooth (2009), bringing forth a disturbing family dynamic that stands in as a microcosm of naïve society under a patriarchal authoritarian state.
Dogtooth opens on an absurd note. Three young adults in a bathroom listening to an educational audiotape of a woman’s voice reciting new vocabulary words and their definitions. The words are relatively simple but their definitions are completely unrelated to what the average audience would understand them to mean. For example, the word “sea” means a “leather armchair with wooden arms,” and “motorway” means “very strong winds.” The lesson is interrupted when one of the girls suggests a game of endurance where everyone puts a finger under boiling water and whoever can handle the pain the longest wins. The events that follow paint a deeply disturbing family portrait of an anonymous household living in isolation, secluded from the rest of society.
The film focuses on a father, a mother, and their three young adult children. The father (Christos Stergioglou) and his wife (Michelle Valley) together believe that keeping their children isolated from a corrupt society is for their own good. As parents, they enforce an entirely unique and fabricated world for their children to grow up and live in. In this world, they use a different vocabulary, entertainment is solely homemade, and much of the knowledge they hold is molded to fall in line with their environment confined within the parameters of the property. In this world, the children remain the children despite their age, airplanes that fly overhead are the size of little toy planes, cats are viciously dangerous animals, and zombies are little yellow flowers. They’re granted their liberty to the outside world once they lose at least one “dogtooth.”
The environment maintains a foundation rooted in patriarchy. The family’s patriarch is the only member of the family with the liberty to leave the house as he pleases. He maintains a job at a local factory, tends to external responsibilities, and does the shopping for the family. His wife and three children all obey his command and work to please him. In their home, he is the pinnacle of authority and his actions, beliefs, and attitudes are never questioned. He oversees the entire family and has his wife report to him about the children over a secret telephone.
The only other male in the house is the son (Hristos Passalis). He does as he’s told and believes wholeheartedly in every word his parents tell him. Although he is obedient, he is outwardly competitive with the eldest sister and a mystery brother over that lives over the fence. We see him fighting over a toy plane with his elder sister who ends up slashing his arm open with a knife. He is also shown bragging to the fence about how he washes the father’s car better, that he washes the tires and the mats, and he never forgets the air freshener. Of the three siblings, he is the only one who has sex. Once a week, the father brings home the female security guard, Christina (Anna Kalaitziadou), from his factory to have sex with his young adult son almost as a clinical act to relieve him of his sexual urges. Within this patriarchal framework that the film upholds, one would expect the son to rise up against the dominant male force of the household. However, the son is cognitively, culturally, and socially stunted in boyhood. He is essentially forever dependent on his father, keeping him as his constant subordinate who will never grow up to become his equal.
While the son is both obedient and competitive, the two sisters represent two opposing attitudes towards their parents. The youngest daughter (Mary Tsoni) is the more naïve of the two. She is portrayed as very childlike, imaginative, and playful. While playing with her barbie, she screams as she cuts it up into little pieces and she’s usually the first to suggest new games to play with her siblings. The eldest daughter (Angeliki Papoulia) teases her for being afraid of their parents when she might be disobedient. The eldest is the most provocative of the group. Viciously competitive with her brother, she is shown to be rather ruthless and violent. She steals food for the invisible brother and we catch her eavesdropping on her mother when she’s “talking to herself” in her bedroom. Over the course of the film, we realize we’re following the growing tension leading up to her own rebellion.
One week when Christina, the outsider, is over at the house, she gives the eldest sister copies of the films Jaws and Rocky. Exposure to this outside world teases her worldview of something greater than what she knows. This curiosity triggers her defiance against her family and she plans her escape. In an initial act of agency, she names herself “Bruce”, a proper name she’s never heard before. She reenacts scenes from both films by herself and with her siblings, which ultimately gets her and Christina in trouble with her father. The film violently ends with the eldest smashing her face until her dogtooth comes loose suggesting that she still holds on to what she knows. With silent confidence she leaves the home and locks herself in the trunk of her father’s car. Despite the patriarchal and authoritarianism boundaries she lives in, the eldest (or “Bruce”) enacts her own cataclysmal revolution against everything she’s ever known.
Without much closure, the film’s end doesn’t give the viewer any nod to what will become of the eldest’s life. While she craves her independence, her family’s environment is all she’s ever known. One could only assume that there lies just too much distance between the world knows and the world that exists beyond her backyard. Society is told what to believe in more ways than one. While the veil of authoritarianism might not be visible, Dogtooth begs the question of what information we accept to be the truth is and who exactly is of authority to provide us with that information. With fake news and discourse over the power of media and the circulation of information, these questions are critical for our greater understanding of each other and ourselves now more than ever.