Thursday, August 11, 2016

Dogtooth and the Cave

by Cass Cannon
“Imagine this: People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. Stretching a long way up toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck. Thus they stay in the same place so that there is only one thing for them to look that: whatever they encounter in front of their faces. But because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around.“
Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic

In a Buñuel-meets-Plato fever dream, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 film Dogtooth churns the messy pot of human nature, serving us up questions about our behaviors and which are inherent and which are learned. Employing the all-familiar structure of the husband/wife/2.5 kids household, he creates an eerie landscape that, while not necessarily designed to incite fear, crawls under your skin and will for sure make you feel all kinds of icky. A beautifully crafted feat of alienation, Dogtooth watches like some breed of science fiction puppet show. Human characteristics are exaggerated and surrealized, the cast having expertly captured the gross feeling of the uncanny. A game of tension, Dogtooth puts the audience in the precarious position of watching a household structure—one that carries a lifetime of baggage with it—all but explode.
Blending the family’s reality with false translations and dense layers of modernized mythology, Mama (Michele Valley) and Papa (Christos Stergioglou) create an almost perfectly closed off social system for their three children, credited as the eldest daughter (Angeliki Papoulia), the son (Hristos Passalis), and the younger daughter (Mary Tsoni). Every piece of information they feed their children relates back to the home, the family unit, or is a literal recording of their activities. Nothing else. We’re never given their names or any indication of how and when the decision to live this way was made, which eliminates any speculation on our part as to whether or not any of this shit is ethical. Because we should all know by now that yes, imprisoning your children isn’t ideal, and it’s not really the point of the film.

Bound to their home as prisoners, the siblings have no cultural footing beyond their own reflections. In the gaps that would normally be filled with outside stimulus, we encounter animalistic behavior, antisocial tendencies, and violence. To tick away at the closed system, Yorgos composes a series of crescendoing interventions and, like the tectonic plates of the Ring of Fire, the foundations and values of the household begin to crumble, becoming more and more disconcerting and removed from either reality. And while this all sounds super dark and uncomfortable, the movie is actually laugh out loud funny. It does a very good job of making even basic human movement distant and weird to us. To further soften his icy point of view, Lanthimos contrasts the seriousness of his proposition with beautiful cinematography and absurd situations that help keep you out of Sad Territory.
In his work Republic, Plato—in a dialogue between Socrates and a few others—discusses the delicate nature by which human beings learn, and when constructed in a way that does not match the societal norm, the damage that can cause a person. They imagine how a man may come to terms with a new reality after escaping not just a physical prison, but a perceptive one. The children are prisoners without the ability to comprehend it, while their environment is fabricated their own anxieties and reactions to it are very, very real. Unlike Republic, Dogtooth’s prison is one of self reflection. Instead of high, dark walls, or cages, the boundaries of their incarceration work much more like mirrors. They’ve grown up only ingesting their own experiences. Places we’d normally go for outside information or new perspectives like music, movies, and—hell—even dreams only have the children’s lives as reference points. It's not until Papa hires Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) as a sexual partner for his son, that the three siblings have a direct link to the outside world.

Christina is an especially interesting character. Treated much like a submissive by Papa, Christina waits to exact her authority on his three naive children in moments of privacy. In an almost power-hungry way, she begins to exchange goods from the outside world for sexual favors from Papa’s eldest daughter. The most subversive of these goods are three VHS tapes: Jaws, Flashdance, and Rocky IV. Finally with outside stimulus and three stories of heroism, the eldest daughter can see the flaws of their environment and recognizes the boundaries they had once accepted to be solid and supporting are in fact transparent and permeable: sliding glass doors instead of mirrors. However, unable to fully dismiss the mythology of her parents, the eldest must play her father’s game to find a way to escape.
With Christina having thrown a wrench into the family’s day-to-day weirdness, everything begins to short circuit. The children lash out at each other, using violence and pain as ways to instill their own sense of logic within their father’s system. They react wildly, as though physically coming to terms with their imprisonment instead of emotionally. In turn, their parents’ grips on the kids’ understanding of the world tightens. Cats who have breached the garden’s walls become man-eating monsters that the children must catch and murder. Mama announces she is pregnant with two children and a wolf, and if the children don’t turn their behavior around, she’ll be forced to give birth. I’m reluctant to reveal any more of the plot as the success of the movie sort of hinges on its unfamiliarity and building absurdity.

As a more contemporary, perverted Allegory of the Cave, Dogtooth asks a lot of us, and insists on not really doing any of the work as far as demystification goes. Unlike The Lobster, which helps its viewers along with an awkward voice over, Dogtooth totally abandons us in its universe and doesn’t really give a shit if we figure our way out or not. I almost wish The Lobster had more of this ambiguity and trusted the viewer more, instead of building to one, pretty flat twist. Dogtooth’s whole story is knotted to the point of defying analysis and that’s what makes it so exciting.


  1. Great write-up, Cait! This is such a bizarre film. I haven't seen it in quitea few years but I think your article is gonna make me seek it out for another viewing.

    1. I'm really digging your choices on movies to write about. Keep em coming!

  2. Agreed. Cait's here to keep us all tripped out and weird.