Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Of the many disturbing elements of the documentary Jesus Camp, the one that affected me the most was the sight of some fundamentalists using home schooling to avoid the encroachment of secular or even traditional forms of religious education to better mold children into someone who would repeat back the insidious lies taught by their parents. I can recall with no small amount of horror the sight of a poor boy coming to the conclusion that creationism is the only logical explanation for the making of the world after being made to use anti-science textbooks all his life.

The parents of Dogtooth make this kind of indoctrination seem tame. Brainwashing a child to believe that the world is only 6,000 years old cannot compare to the total sensory deprivation inflicted upon these kids. The first shot places a cassette player in close-up as one of those detached female voices that seem to be used in all instruction tapes for every languages assigns children words in their native Greek. But the definitions assigned are dissociated from the words we know. "Sea" becomes the word for a recliner, "zombie" a yellow flower.

The family in question consists of a father, mother, two young adult daughters and a son entering his 20s. They live in the sort of compound one expects to find a small cult, and the children never leave the place. Only the father drives to the outside world, stopping by the factory he owns and picking up a security guard named Christina to come tend to his son's urges. Christina, the representative of the outside world, is the only character with a name. The father blindfolds her each time so she may not lead anyone back to this perverse home, but her complete lack of interest in the insane experiment into which she is brought suggests that the outside world has bigger fish to fry.

Unfolding like a Wes Anderson film as made by Luis Buñuel, Dogtooth takes the idea of a dysfunctional, bourgeois family to an extreme. The father makes his home into a prison, and the wife inexplicably goes along with his twisted machinations. The son, aware only of a stirring in his loins, awkwardly thrusts into Christina, treating her as an object that his father brings in every week to satisfy him. Frustrated by the boy's coldness, Christina seeks her own gratification elsewhere, trading trinkets for oral sex from the eldest daughter.

The great irony of such extreme sheltering, of course, is that a child never learns to deal with the world. The oldest daughter performs cunnilingus on Christina without understanding the importance of it, and later she takes the two VHS movies Christina gives her and memorizes them. I have a fascination with the old PMRC brouhaha in the '80s that led to the labeling of albums, and director Giorgos Lanthimos shows through the daughter that shielding someone from "negative stimuli" only makes it more difficult for them to figure out the difference between ficiton and reality later. The children kill a cat that wanders into the compound because they've never seen one before and are terrified by it, yet the oldest daughter begins to model her life after Jaws after seeing it but one time. Exposure to such things is a necessity at a young age: like psychoanalytic chicken pox, it's better to get a milder case as a kid and build up an immunity rather than let a much more devastating variation strike in adult years.

So malformed are the brains of the three adult children that even the concept of incest does not give them pause. Even more disturbingly, it also doesn't seem to affect the parents that much. At some point, the desire to raise children outside of supposed bad influences turns to a dictatorial, horrific experiment that has the kids, even the wife, on all fours barking like dogs and competing for affection. The mother says she is pregnant with twins, and when the kids express reluctance to share with new siblings, she psychologically tortures them by saying that, if they are all well-behaved, she won't have to give birth and inconvenience them. The father wants to raise these kids outside the ills of society, yet his physical and mental abuse is far worse than gangsta rap or nudity in film.

Numerous ideas abound in Dogtooth. Besides the issues raised by the mad form of home schooling, the film uses its word conditioning to show how everything only has the meaning we assign to it. Those who would try to hide their children from the evil aspects of society must still rely on some form of social conditioning forged by the slow evolution of human relationships; these parents almost completely break from what we would all consider normal child-rearing, and the results are horrific. Alternately, the walling-off of the family in their home speaks to the postmodern enslavement in the home that comes in the age of the Internet. And when one says someone is cut off from the outside world in the current era, that statement feels more literal than figurative given the heightened connectivity across borders.

Dogtooth presents its characters through a disgustingly sterile sheen, that ghostly white that luminates hospital corridors and looks anything but saintly. The parents have kept their children in a bubble all their lives, protecting them from "diseases" until a hole forms and a virus attacks a host without immunities. It is a sign of Lanthimos' skill with pacing that he can present so many shocking, repulsive images, only to make a simple dance at the dinner table, a silly, childish expression of bubbling resentment, the most unsettling act. As an understated climax leading to an unsure dénouement, it's as chilling, mildly horrific, and darkly hilarious as everything that came before it.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent commentary on the film. I love how you point out how the elevation of a minor scene to something of central importance. That's the sort of scene that lets you know that it's not the grandiosity of the events themselves that matter but what they convey, and when you see an insignificant event serve as the fitting climax then you know there's a hammer behind it. I haven't seen you write about The Temptation of St. Tony at all, and given your appreciation for this film I think you'll find that one as amazing as I did. It doesn't come out on DVD for another week or two - but it's great!