When is a movie weird just for the sake of being weird? When it is a giant fuck you to nations, organizations, and the entirety of a an elite ruling class? In the 2010 Greek film, Dogtooth, produced, directed, and written by award-winning director Yorgos Lanthimos, the f-bomb is hardwired to its absurdism. But if you were to assign representation to the characters in the film, the politik would be much easier to see.
The overbearing father is a stand-in for the European Union, or Germany specifically, as it is the country that everyone sees as steering the ship, making the rules, and being the primary breadwinner. The three adult children, all of whom have been so protected, and their exposure to the outside world so limited, that they are woefully unprepared for it, represent the Greeks. The one to pay most attention to is the eldest daughter, she is something greater, she represents a very specific segment of Greek society. The mother is France, who is a significantly powerful second to Germany in the EU, but through whose acceptance of German dominance has allowed Europe to be turned from a union of like-minded nations into a German power zone. She is at least tacitly supportive of the father’s rigid and arbitrary rules, living well off her husband’s money at the expense of her children, and neglectful and complacent – if not active – in the corruption and infantilization of those children.
Thanks to their magnanimous father, the children are healthy, well-fed, exercised, literate, and numerate. They have safety, shelter, food, comfort, and entertainment. Who could ask for more? The outside world is dangerous; only a fool and an ungrateful wretch would want to leave the delightful walled family compound they call home. The children are told the only way they can leave the compound is by the loss of one of their dog teeth (known as canine or eye teeth in English). They can only leave by driving, and they can only learn to drive after their dog tooth has grown back. Their entire lives they believe the only way they can ever leave the family compound is through a series of impossible events.
The family speak a very correct and stuffy form of Greek, without any form of coarseness, slang, or obscenity. The way they speak Greek sounds very strange to a modern demotic Greek speaker. I wonder if the Greek they use is a form of “Katharevousa,” which is a form of Greek only used for official letters and government decrees, especially popular in the military junta period of 1967-74. It was touted as a “pure” form of Greek that uses only words that are derived from ancient Greek and shuns words borrowed from other languages. It would not surprise me if it was the case as it highlights the fascistic fantasies of father. Even the children’s body language is subdued. There is a common joke that if you want a Greek to keep quiet, tie up his hands. It is meant to be funny, but rings of truth; Greeks tend to speak in a very demonstrative fashion, with arms waving and accompanying facial contortions, a conversation with an excited Greek is its own show. The children register very little emotion and walk through the entire film as nearly expressionless zombies.
Watching the film, I was struck by how un-Greek the characters seemed to me. Greeks, in my experience, tend to be loud, effusive, and very demonstrative of their emotions. Whether a Greek is happy, sad, angry, or content, you will not need to ask how they are, it will be obvious. In contrast, the father, even when he is violently beating someone, never raises his voice and throughout the movie shows almost no emotion, especially around the children. At one point the mother is asked what a zombie is, and she tells the son that it’s a little yellow flower. She cannot tell him what a zombie is because it is a dangerous concept. What if the children realized they been zombified by their parents and rebelled? Just as Germany must keep the lesser European Union nations in the dark about what they truly are, the mother cannot let the children realize they are, in fact, a type of zombie.
Greek children are taught to be proud of their roots – especially regionally – and most children can sing their regional songs and dance their regional dances from a young age. If you ever attend a big celebration in Greece – a saint’s day festival or a wedding – you are very likely to spot children as young as seven or eight whose dancing abilities put most adults to shame; it is simply part of how they grew up. Not so the characters in Dogtooth. The rare times music is played, it is not Greek. At one point we see that the father long ago convinced the children that Frank Sinatra was their grandfather, and he then “translates” the words Sinatra sings for them into childish sayings about how much their grandfather loves them. When the daughter dances she does it without joy, and it is as a four-year-old might, with no particular form, wild spastic gyrating, and paying little attention to the beat. She has clearly not been brought up dancing and singing at feasts and festivals.
Greeks also have a well-earned reputation for being open-hearted and neighbourly, and frequently live close to – in some cases even with – large extended families. The family has no friends and no relatives other than the nuclear family presented in the film. There are no neighbours and no regular visitors, and as they do not live in a village, but in a compound out in the empty country, with no front porch to interact with, and call out greetings to, passersby. All of this is counter to what are considered traditionally Greek cultural traits. The father has made the family stuffy, formal, and rigid. He has trained all the emotion and joy out of his children’s lives and removed them from their culture, community, and extended family. He has successfully eliminated the traditionally effusive and boisterous nature of Greeks and replaced it with an efficient and boring plainness that is mixed with childishness. He has made the family frigid and loveless, as the Mediterraneans traditionally stereotype the Germans and other northern races. They might be the least Greek “Greeks” I have ever experienced in any form; and that, I believe is the point Lanthimos is trying to make. They are Greeks as Germany and the European Union would like them to be: docile and obedient children.
Near the middle of the film the mother tells the father that she is pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl. The father asks if she is sure it isn’t two boys, or hoping maybe for triplets. The mother is adamant that it is a boy and a girl. In this instance she is the one dictating how the family grows, using her veto power – as member states of the European Union are allowed – to block the family growing in a way she does not like. The children are told that in the coming months their mother will give birth to two children and a dog. This will require them to share their rooms, their clothes, and even their toys. The bright side is now they will have two more people to support them and the family will be bigger. The father tells the children to applaud the mother in anticipation of this “gift.” When the children are informed, the daughters complain that they do not want to share things with the new children, and they are told that if there are improvements in their behaviour and performance then they won’t have to share, but if things remain the same they will be giving the parents no choice but to expand the family. The dog situation is not up for debate, the children are told the mother will give birth to the dog as soon as possible. The dog appears to be entirely the father’s decision, and the mother doesn’t seem to care nor contest the issue.
Early in the film, the father visits a dog training facility where the new family dog is being trained. He wants to take it home but the trainer convinces him it is a bad idea as the dog is not ready to leave training and join the family; it is only in the second level of a six-level training program. The dog represents a number of countries that many in the international community felt were rushed into the European Union before they were ready. The majority of these new member-states were former Eastern Bloc countries, and their inclusion in the EU – aggressively supported by Germany – was said to be to create a bulwark against a newly resurgent and increasingly polemic Russia before it could begin to wield too much influence on Germany’s eastern border again. When seen on a map, the addition of these “dogs” – from north to south: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary Romania, and Bulgaria – to the EU “family” does in fact create a massive buffer between Germany and Russia that reaches from the Baltic Sea in the north, all the way to the Black Sea in the southeast.
The trainer uses very humanistic language when discussing dogs. He speaks of them as though they are undeveloped humans – or in this case, countries – saying they are like clay that needs to be molded, asking the father: “Do we want an animal or a friend? Do we want a guard who will respect us as his master and do unhesitatingly whatever we ask of him?” The trainer goes on to tell the father that to mold a dog into what you want it to be requires work, patience, and care, and that he needs to be patient and wait for the dog to be fully ready before it can join the family. It is important to note the dog will be very helpful in protecting the family compound, but is not human, so it will not enjoy the same benefits as a human; just as the lesser EU countries are technically part of the union, but not part of the Euro-zone, still conducting business in their traditional currencies.
In the first half of the film the oldest daughter has periodic contact with the outside world through the lone visitor allowed by the father. This visitor acts as prostitute, servicing the son, but inadvertently sows the seeds of corruption and the ideas of the outside world with the oldest daughter through the sharing of VHS tapes of Western pop culture films like Jaws, Flashdance, and Rocky. The security guard represents tourism. She is allowed to come in and “satisfy” the children/Greeks with work and distraction. Her purpose in the compound is to give the children something to do, something to satisfy them enough to keep them, especially the son, content and complacent. Then the rules change, and the father stop that flow of tourism. In real life Germany demanded that Greece significantly raise taxes on alcohol and tobacco to help pay its debts faster. This made alcohol and tobacco essentially the same price in Greece as it was in the heavily taxed northern countries, the main source of Greece’s tourism. Tourist numbers plummeted as Greece was now considered too expensive for many of those northern tourists who for a number of years skipped “overpriced” Greece and instead spent their money in Spain and a peaceful and stable pre-Erdogan Turkey.
When the father discovers this unwelcome influence on his child, he cuts off the visits and has the son choose which daughter should sexually service him. He chooses the oldest sister, who is prepared for this abominable task by her own mother. Afterwards the daughter takes a small dumbbell and bashes out her dog tooth, leaving the sink a bloody mess. She then hides in the trunk of her father’s car, eventually escaping with him when he leaves for work in what could be considered, very fittingly, a Trojan Horse maneuver. She is the smartest child, and she has to mutilate herself to escape the family compound like a coyote who gnaws its foot off to escape a trap. She is out in the big world alone, afraid, and woefully unprepared for it. She represents the brain drain of educated Greeks, essentially forced to leave her country and everything she knows by the harsh, arbitrary, self-serving, and frequently insane rules of her father and of her complacent leeching mother. With the older sister gone and seemingly quickly forgotten, the son now fornicates with his younger sister, the both of them dumb and happy, mentally neutered in their bubble of ignorance. The father tells the mother he will pick up the dog from the trainer as soon as he can, it has likely reached at least level five of six, and that is good enough.
Dogtooth is as strange as a film can be. It does not have any visually appealing action sequences, there are no friendly lines that friends will quote to each other, and even the sex scenes are uncomfortable to watch. It is not a film that will be on regular rotation of cable favourites. What we have instead is an immensely creative allegory effectively articulating the Greek economic crisis in the new millennium: a story of dysfunction and self-serving corruption in the European Union through an absurd and dysfunctional family living in a high-walled compound, neighbourless, friendless, alone, and afraid of all that is outside those walls.