Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is known for his strange films full of emotionless dialogue and intentionally stiff performances that create a strange, uncanny world that seems both familiar and alien. From The Lobster to The Favourite, Lanthimos has captured our weird hearts with his tales of love, family, and obsession. Then, there is his 2010 film Dogtooth, which encapsulates the essence of this director’s sensibilities and tells a story about the extremes of control. After ten years, this film is more prescient than ever as a cautionary tale about power and the meanings of words.
Dogtooth focuses on a family of five living in an isolated home where the father (Christos Stergioglou) controls the three children, Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), Son (Hristos Passalis), and Younger Daughter (Mary Tsoni). They live in a state of boredom as they are barred from ever living the confines of their estate. Here, they play and interact with the world as if they are young children. Their existence is strange and limited until they decide they wish to escape.
Control in Dogtooth stems from the parents, who have created a miniature cult in their home. Their children are not just children, but figures they can mold into exactly what they want. More than that, they do not ever want to let go of that control and keep their children trapped. The family lives in a bright green pastoral oasis, complete with lush grass and a turquoise pool. It is designed to seem like the perfect place of safety, particularly compared to the stark and dry landscape that lies outside of their walls. But the three children are not allowed to leave. So here they live, under the thumb of oppressive parents, but blissfully unaware of how they are being controlled.
“After ten years, [Dogtooth] is more prescient than ever as a cautionary tale about power and the meanings of words.”
But it is not just the setting that attempts to contain the family. The father and mother also teach their children the wrong meaning of words. Zombie is a small yellow flower, pussy is a bright light, sea is an armchair, the list goes on. While these three kids appear to be college-aged or older, they are infantilized and treated as helpless creatures. They are at the mercy of their parents down to the words they speak. And what is so devastating is how much trust they have for their parents; they are their rulers and can do no wrong. This raises a horrifying idea that perhaps those in charge are lying to you.
This also drives a key idea about the literal meaning of words. While words such as sea and zombie seem trivial, it builds up to create a new, warped vocabulary that creates an ocean of difference between the children and the rest of the world. As we know right now, words are so important and can be empowering or belittling. In Dogtooth, words are belittling, a way to take advantage of the naivety and enact a system of control.
Of course, sexual desire is also closely monitored and addressed but only for the male child. The father brings in a security guard who has sex with the son to give him a controlled sexual outlet, a calculated and scheduled release that is thought to help curb any aggression or sexual urges. However, in trying to provide structure, the father introduces an uncontrollable variable that also wants her own form of control: Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou).
Christina has sex with the son for money, plain and simple. She derives no pleasure from their encounters. But she decides that she wants pleasure and asks the son to perform oral sex. She no longer wants to function as a sex doll and wants more than money in return. In asking for something from the son, she is exerting a small form of control. However, she doesn’t get what she wants from him so she moves to the daughters. Here, sexual acts become even more transactional as Christina offers the eldest daughter a headband in exchange for oral sex. Even more disturbing, Christina is controlling the daughter as she has no idea about sexual acts. She calls oral “licking” and makes it seem like an innocuous act rather than sexual. Not only are these children being manipulated by their parents, but also by others who wish to take advantage of them for personal pleasure.
The need for control and transactional relationships does trickle down to the three siblings, who have developed their own hierarchy based around competition. That hierarchy is already established as none of them have names; they are ranked by their age which gives the eldest daughter a feeling of superiority over her siblings. Every game and activity is a competition, with prizes such as stickers. They are their own best friends and worst enemies. They love and hate each other. They want to win and they want the others to lose. They must navigate the complexities of human emotions with one another as they have no one else to interact with. This includes extremely uncomfortable sexual interactions and tension that are damning to the world their father has set to create. Taboo does not mean the same thing to this family; they have their own taboos and ideas of how they are meant to interact with the world. This desire for control from their father has created new methods of control, which means this is a world that is based on transactions, not compassion. It’s every person for themself.
“In Dogtooth, words are belittling, a way to take advantage of the naivety and enact a system of control.”
Watching Dogtooth is like looking into an alien world. Yes, they speak like humans and look like humans, but these characters interact with the world and each other in such a strange, uncanny way that feels so distant from what it means to be a person. It is a world centered on power, control, and just how quickly that can all be wrenched from your hands. While oftentimes disturbing, Dogtooth is a unique piece of horror that shows how monsters can really be anywhere. You yourself might be a monster if you’re not careful.
Dogtooth is currently streaming on Shudder. What do you think of Dogtooth? What’s your favorite film directed by Lanthimos? Let us know over Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!