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You Don’t Need a Name If You Never Leave Home: Analysis and Revelations of Dogtooth

Taylor Grieshober

I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down to watch the Greek black comedy, Dogtooth (dir. Yogos Lanthimos, 2009). What little I knew about it was relayed via text messages from a cinephile friend: “Dogtooth: I’m in love,” followed by “the best thing I’ve seen in ten years.” Before it could be hyped up anymore, and long before it was nominated for Best Foreign Film by the Academy, I added it to my instant queue.

Three unnamed twenty-something siblings (Christos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni), live with their mother (Michelle Valley) and father (Christos Stergioglou) on a gorgeously lush compound in the sticks. Each day Father goes to work in a nameless factory, and the kids are left to their own devices behind the towering wall that bars them from the outside world. The siblings listen to idiosyncratic recordings of recited vocabulary. They learn that a ‘sea’ is an armchair, a ‘telephone’ is a saltshaker, and a motorway is just “a very strong wind.” Their parents’ manipulations are so extreme that the kids think airplanes are merely toys that fall from the sky. They play games to pass the time and to test endurance. Whoever catches the plane wins. Whoever keeps their finger under scalding water longest, wins. Whoever wakes up first after huffing antiseptic, wins. In the evening, the family sits around to watch a movie. It’s a home movie, the only kind they’re permitted to watch. The younger sister sits on the edge of the couch, lovingly mouthing along with the tape. All is perfect in this dream-like prison until Father commissions Christina (the only named character) to meet the sexual needs of his son. Soon sex and culture become bartered goods and this carefully constructed world of preventative measures begins to crumble.

What is most striking about Dogtooth is not the picturesque setting or the stunningly simple cinematography. What sets this film apart from other dysfunctional family dramas are the levels of manipulation, the humorous, eerie glimpse into a household headed by a megalomaniac, and the questions it stirs in us.

Initially Father and Mother’s deceptions are harmless and undeniably funny. The kids are led to believe that their grandfather is Frank Sinatra, for instance. The joke turns a bit sinister, however, when the lyrics from “Fly Me to the Moon” are translated as paternalist propaganda. Later, Father explains that their worst enemy is an animal called a cat, which “eats meat, children’s flesh in particular.” The children are then taught to bark. This seemingly innocuous trickery makes us laugh, until its put into context and we recant our laughter. The way in which Lanthimos moves the viewer from grin to grimace from minute to minute is what makes Dogtooth inarguably fresh and groundbreaking. We don’t have the time to process our emotional shift from unsettled pleasure to horror. Early on it’s revealed that the children believe they have a fourth sibling, another brother, who lives just beyond the walls of the compound. If they misbehave, they too will be sent out into the wild to fend for themselves. The made up vocabulary seems random until you realize that the replaced words are ones that represent the outside world. The best way to keep people under one’s thumb is to keep them ignorant, and manipulating language is a sure-fire way to do that. All the kids know is what their parents teach them and so, for the majority of the film they live with unquestioning allegiance to Mother and Father.

The reactions the film elicits are different from other squeamishly funny films like, say, the work of Todd Solondz. Solondz is a shock artist and a satirist. His movies are campy and funny because we recognize that his characters are caricatures. Take Happiness for example. When Helen (played by Lara Flynn Boyle), an upper-middle class writer attempting to pen a memoir about dysfunction, in which she has none, says in a dramatic, woe-is-me tone, “If only I had been raped as a child, then I would know authenticity,” we can laugh without feeling too seriously implicated. Throughout Solondz’s work, he sub-textually winks at the audience to let us know we’re in on the joke. Lanthimos supplies no such winking, only a puzzle. While the humor is absurd, it isn’t remotely campy, and the implications provoked in the viewer are more candid than with Solondz. The kids’ motivations for violence are completely fathomable as infantilized, sheltered adults who are trying to forge their own identities. It’s typical for kids to lash out in their formative years, although in real life it tends to happen much earlier. The parents of Dogtooth, for fear of harm befalling their kids, have decided to keep them close. Look at parents who home-school their children for a reference point. These issues—longing for identity and autonomy and desire to protect one’s children—are legitimate concerns for normal people. Lanthimos leaves Solondz in the dust because he shows us what those  values and concerns look like at an authentic extreme, as opposed to a caricatured one. We relate to the children of Dogtooth and come to the conclusion that, if our parents imprisoned us perhaps indefinitely, we’d most likely turn out the same way.  

But this distinction between Solondz and Lanthimos, as far as I’ve read, is entirely in my head. To some critics, Dogtooth has received comparisons to the work of Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Cache, Funny Games). But to compare Dogtooth to Funny Games in particular is to miss the complexity of the former. While Haneke’s storytelling is didactic and literal, Lanthimos allows us to be mystified and, like all truly great filmmakers, he leaves us with more questions than answers. My questions kept me up at night, and they’re still haunting me months after my initial viewing. For instance, what is this film saying about culture? There is a scene towards the end of the movie when the sisters are performing for Father and Mother’s wedding anniversary party. They skit around the room in creepy synchronized movements. Their hand gestures recall the way flappers moved in the 20’s. But of course these girls haven’t seen flappers dance. They’re improvising. Although this scene disturbed me more than any other, it is one of the more intriguing moments in the movie.  If you’re not exposed to culture, will you inevitably create your own?  And will that made-up culture take a similar form to an established one?



But the most consuming question Dogtooth posits, at least for me has been, are we really so different from this family? Mother and Father teach their kids that the vagina is called a keyboard, and the siblings’ cluelessness becomes apparent when licking an elbow and performing oral sex are one in the same. Otherwise practical parents teach their offspring they exist because a stork dropped them off, or, perhaps even more damaging, they teach their kids absolutely nothing about sex in the hopes that they won’t grow up too fast. But those kids do grow up, usually with misinformed ideas about sexuality and pleasure. So, are de facto parents really so different from Lanthimos’s demented creations? Is making up a banished fourth child to instill fear in your real children that far removed from telling your kid he’ll only get a lump of coal for Christmas if he doesn’t behave? That Santa is always watching? That God is always watching? And the abuse in Dogtooth, how far removed is that from our world? The parents discipline the children like dogs, giving them immediate reward or punishment for their actions. In one scene, Mother forces the son to hold Listerine in his mouth for what seems like an eternity to teach him a lesson. Lifebuoy soap, anyone?

If you think all dysfunctional families are the same, I urge you to give this Greek gem a chance. At the very least, it’s a conversation piece and a bizarre little biscuit you can really sink your teeth into.


Taylor Grieshober is a writer living in Wilkinsburg. These days, she splits her time evenly between reading, swimming, and eating. She also co-directs The New Yinzer Presents.