Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos

Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘Dogtooth’ Suspends Language to Explore It

By systematically abusing the language system, Dogtooth confronts the postmodern speculative dichotomy between reality and fiction.

Yorgos Lanthimos
Feelgood Entertainment
18 May 2009 (Cannes)

Winner of the award “Un Certain Regard,” Dogtooth is Yorgos Lanthimos’ second feature film. Thus far, it has received great acclamation and has won awards at film festivals in Toronto, Munich, Catalonia, and, most recently, Stockholm. Dark, provocative, humoristic, and twisted are some of the words that best describe Lanthimos’ film, which will be the subject of long discussions when officially released in the UK and US.

Dogtooth tells the story of a family living on the outskirts of a town somewhere in Greece. The family consists of the father (Christos Stergioglou), mother (Michele Valley), older daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), younger daughter (Mary Tsoni,) and son (Christos Passalis). The kids have never been outside the tall fence surrounding the house, and they have been educated only in the manner their parents deem appropriate, without any influence from the outside world.

The situation is confounded by the fact that the language system they have learned from their parents is absurd, with no representational attributes. For example, the kids have learned that airplanes flying overhead are toys, zombies are small yellow flowers, a lamp is a white bird, and a keyboard is the definition for female genitalia. When they hear their mother talking secretly on the phone, they think, “Mom talks to herself.” They entertain themselves by watching family videos recorded by their father and are warned that a cat is a life-threatening animal. Furthermore, as their father explains, they can only leave the house securely once their right dogtooth falls.

Therefore Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard who works at the father’s business, is the only person from the outside world who enters the house, visiting mostly to fulfill the son’s sexual urges. (Her presence in the house will eventually provoke a series of events that will change the family’s serenity.) Sick of offering her sexual services to the son without having an orgasm, Christina gives the eldest daughter a headband with stones that glow in the dark as a present, only to ask for oral sex in return. The arrival of sex in the house provokes curiosity for the outside world. Consequently, the lexical and hermeneutic boundaries offered by the family cannot satisfy the older daughter anymore, who decides to break her own dogtooth to gain admission to the outside “reality”.

Dogtooth cannot be categorised as a film that provides the audience with a coherent and closed fictive cosmos produced by means of mimesis. On the contrary, it is a treatise on representation and an interrogation of the notion of the “real.” Lanthimos is dedicated to exploring the potentials of representation, and in doing so, he minimises dramaturgy to the extent that the final cut is more like an assemblage of happenings rather than a discernible narrative. In many ways, the film recalls some of the Dogme Manifesto’s restrictions in the filmmaking process, such as the minimal dramaturgy, the avoidance of extra-diegetic music, and the emphasis on the possibilities stemming from the unpretentious performances of the actors.

Also, by systematically abusing the language system, Dogtooth confronts the postmodern speculative dichotomy between reality and fiction. One of the fundamental premises of postmodern thought is the perception of the world as a linguistic construct. From this perspective, language is interrogated, abused, and de-systematized, with the view to exhibiting the split between sign and referent and demonstrating that it is an enforced code rather than a natural system of signification. Brecht’s modernist theories on theatre aimed at demonstrating that language cannot be neutral by explicitly treating it as a “hetroglot”, namely the language of the other, which is politically contaminated. As he says: “the world is someone else’s and thus always already a quotation” (Saurtiliot: 1984, p.129.)

Jacques Derrida has pushed Brecht’s argument forward, arguing that there is a complete inadequacy between saying and meaning, a theory reflected in the experiments of contemporary performance art and the post-dramatic theatre (Lehmann: 2006.) These experiments are grounded in the idea that only by questioning the medium of its own articulation can art change our perception of the world and avoid reproducing the “consensus omnium.”

By this account, the acting style in Dogtooth follows the aesthetics of post-Brechtian performance, which prioritises the presence of the bodies of the actors as empty masks, as bearers of signs that accumulate material from the aesthetic and extra-aesthetic reality. Such preference towards presence over-representation is reinforced by an acting style that reduces the actor to a linguistic quotation instead of a unified subject. This view of identity is central to postmodern theory and marks a break with one of the central tenets of the Enlightenment: the unitary Cartesian self and the deployment of reason as a means of interpreting the world and orientating oneself within it. Subjectivity is seen as an agent of Western reason that postmodernism opposes (Friedrich: 1999, p.46).

Lanthimos draws upon these issues in Dogtooth by explicitly showing his actors quoting the script instead of performing it, a “modus operandi” that has absurd, grotesque, and hilarious effects on the narrative. At times the camera captures the bodies of the actors speaking without showing their faces, an aesthetic that clearly reinforces the dissociation between the speaking subject and the words enunciated, signifying words are a foreign body and do not belong to the speaker. Here it is important to emphasise that this blockage of linguistic communication as put forward by the film is not a childish technique but instead draws upon the contemporary concept of the disappearance of the real into images and representations, or as Jean Baudrillard puts it into simulacra (Baudrillard: 1994, 6).

At one point, the elder daughter asks for a copy of Rocky that she finds in Christina’s bag in exchange for giving her oral sex again. This triggers a series of violent events, instigating the daughter’s curiosity for a world beyond the linguistic and visual boundaries imposed by her parents. After watching Rocky she realises that there are subjects that have names and are not nameless as herself and her family, and she asks her sister to call her Bruce. The younger sister obliges and the representational function of language is once again undermined, demonstrating that a “glossological” change does not necessarily succeed in ameliorating the rupture between being and meaning. Earlier in the film we see the family entertaining itself by looking at videos of its own life, hinting at contemporary media reality in which real-reference and self-reference blur.

Can reality be perceived outside our representational systems? Dogtooth refuses to answer this question, nor does it offer a narrative closure that provides even a one-dimensional interpretation. Equally notable is that Dogtooth is not interested in creating a dramatic story–referencing, for example, the Fritzl child imprisonment case in Austria last year. On the contrary, the film engages in an exploration of language through the temporary suspension of it. The spectator is asked to participate in the hermeneutic process and redefine his or her role, in the same way that Dogtooth opposes the concept of representation as an act of reproduction of images for consumption. It will preoccupy film criticism and film enthusiasts for a long time.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’, in Simulacra and Simulation trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: UMP, 1994), pp.1-48.

Friedrich, Rainer, ‘Brecht and Postmodernism’, in Philosophy and Literature 23:1 (1999), pp.44-64.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies, Postdramatic Theatre (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

Sariliot, Claude, Citation and Modernity: Derrida, Joyce and Brecht (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).