‘Dogtooth’: The Absurdist Family Drama and Blueprint of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Career
Horror

‘Dogtooth’: The Absurdist Family Drama and Blueprint of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Career

“It didn’t really start as a story about family dysfunction and such. In the beginning, I was wondering about family life and parenting in general and if the way we think about it would ever really change.”

In an interview with Pamela Jahn of Electric Sheep Magazine, Yorgos Lanthimos muses on his initial thought process behind the creation of his acclaimed 2009 absurdist family drama Dogtooth. In the above quote, the director who would come to be known to English-speaking audiences through hilariously nightmarish features like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Poor Things, and the upcoming Kinds of Kindness explains how the idea of Dogtooth slowly began to form after a conversation with some soon-to-be-newlywed friends.

In the wake of their union, Lanthimos would make some slight and friendly jabs at their decision to marry and start a family despite the high chances of divorce. A joke on his part, but the joke only caused his friends to retaliate and become defensive of their decision. When the idea of the perfect family was briefly and jokingly challenged, an instinctual need to preserve the image took over. A defensiveness that would be taken to the extreme in Dogtooth.

At this point in his career, Yorgos Lanthimos has steadily developed a reputation in Hollywood for his idiosyncratic films that often veer into black comedic territory. Having recruited the likes of Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone among many others for his films, Lanthimos’s unorthodox and often-deadpan satires have afforded him a large audience that slowly has become familiar with his style.

Filled with eloquent and biting dialogue and a straight-faced approach to outlandish concepts such as family curses and relationship hotels, Lanthimos fancies a good laugh from the absurdities of modern society. Just when his films present taboo and morbid topics that refuse to spare the audience’s needs for good taste, he chooses to squeeze as much comedy from the situation as he can while maintaining a tone so utterly serious it more closely resembles aliens impersonating humanity’s desperate need for normalcy.

It’s a style that was first exposed to a wider audience with 2009’s Dogtooth. His third feature-length film at that point, Lanthimos’s experience with his newlywed friends eventually blossomed into a nightmarish oddity of a family drama. Dogtooth is a story of an artificial microcosm created within a very real world with a family patriarch raising his three adult children in his luxurious home without any access to the outside world.

The two daughters and son are left without schooling or socialization, confined to a world artificially crafted by the father and mother. The children are taught intentionally fake terminology for anything that may inspire curiosity of the world beyond their fence. Salt is “telephone”, little yellow flowers are “zombies”, genitals are “keyboards”, etc.

Boredom and lack of real supervision outside of their general confinement has repressed the overgrown children mentally and sexually, causing them to explore their sexuality in unusual ways. While the father pays someone from the outside to experiment with his son, the two daughters are often left to experiment in their own regard. Activities involving licking each other as part of a barter system is the norm; a mixture of playful experimentation and uncomfortably casual incest.

Emerging from the Greek Weird Wave of filmmakers, Lanthimos’s career truly took off after an era of Greek cinema hot off the heels of a late 2000s financial crisis. Despite that, Greek cinema was saw its fair share of commercial success with the rise of satirical films in the 1990s. In an industry that was already tackling taboo subjects (such as in the 1990 Greek sex comedy hit Safe Sex), Lanthimos took it up a notch with Dogtooth, a film that included topics of sex inside a larger examination of a toxic family unit.

The Greek director is often closely associated with experimental satires, particularly for his filmography from the 2010s and onward. His awkward and transgressive conversations on the fragility of the family unit, the nasty undercurrent of “polite society”, and the artificial hollowness of modern love have become a staple of his films such as The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite, and most recently with Poor Things.

But despite his transition into Hollywood and English-language films, Lanthimos’s blueprint for unusual and stilted satire has lived on in every one of his films. His nonchalant attitude towards his depictions of sex, family, and society as brittle foundations of a broken core are characterized through his trademark deadpan humor, dark comedy, and comically on-the-nose observational dialogue. He has entered a point in his career where larger audiences are able to spot his idiosyncrasies with increasing ease.

Dogtooth is the beginning of Lanthimos and writer Efthimis Filippou’s exposure to a wider audience and a key film that establishes their weird trademarks. In fact, Dogtooth is Lanthimos and Filippou in their rawest and most subtly terrifying form to date. While categorized as a psychological drama, the absurd nature of the film’s premise makes way for a plethora of icky and downright horrifying concepts.

There is a certain gloss to Lanthimos’s style that becomes more abundant in his transition to Hollywood, but the borderline surreal world in Dogtooth is refused that chance. We see the children – specifically the eldest daughter – grow curious about the outside world and themselves, but their journey of self-discovery is guided by their extremely limited understanding of even the most basic concepts.

A running bit in the film involves the siblings falsely believing that they have a brother living just outside of the fence. But when a stray cat enters their garden and is killed by one of the kids with shears, the father uses this as an opportunity to teach the kids about the dangers of stray cats. Faking an attack from one of these cats through fake blood, the father scares his children into believing that cats were responsible for the death of their unseen brother, further establishing an unseen hostile world that the kids must avoid at all costs.

We bear witness to a dystopian nightmare as the father continues to instill fear of the outside world to his kids. A dystopian nightmare without a hint of sci-fi to soften the blow. In a 2010 interview posted on The Rumpus, Lanthimos commented on how his initial idea for the film placed the story in a sci-fi/futuristic setting before ultimately shifting gears to the normal modern world.

Lanthimos mused on how the introduction of an entirely new world could have distracted from the fundamentals of the story, deciding that a story like Dogtooth’s can happen at any time. Dystopian future or not, the idea of an extremely sheltered family going to great lengths to not accommodate to a modern social climate is something rooted in more real-life families than we’d care to admit.

In 2015 for instance, the release of the documentary titled The Wolfpack tackles this very issue with the Angulo family. The mother and children were confined to their Lower East Side apartment for years thanks to their father, with their main connection to the outside world being movies they would quote and meticulously recreate for their home videos.

It’s a natural curiosity to ponder what we see in media and if our world knowledge is limited, all we can do is imitate and recreate. It’s what we see the eldest daughter do in Dogtooth once the family security guard sneaks in some VHS movies. She quotes the movies to herself and while performing her home activities and once the father finds out, he takes it out on the guard by mercilessly beating her with her VHS player.

Another real-life case I thought of during Dogtooth was the horrific situation of the Turpin family, in which 13 children and dependent adults were routinely abused by their parents and mostly kept in captivity, They went outside on the rarest of occasions and were otherwise kept at home malnourished, unwashed, among other awful things. It wasn’t until 2018 when the children – all due to the escape of daughter Jordan Turpin – were able to leave the captive abuse of their parents.

Lanthimos recognizes the inherently abusive core of these types of situations, but while he in no way downplays the seriousness of this family dynamic, his ability to take the family in Dogtooth and humorously tackle the baffling absurdity of what makes a family a real family unit is what makes his films so awkwardly hilarious. How his characters are known for speaking their minds in overtly blunt fashion that makes for a good laugh right before the whiplash of seeing those characters suddenly get hurt or maimed in unexpected ways.

The horror of Dogtooth is its mundanity with such a touchy subject. We have films that make it their goal to shock the audience through an overbearing sense of edginess that feels akin to Bart Simpson clanking pans together for attention. Lanthimos lets us sit with this family and dares us to laugh at a father forcing his children and wife to bark in a hairbrained attempt to instill the fear of cats into the kids.

Even when Lanthimos explored other ideas in his later films, the core of what makes Dogtooth is ever-present. The transparent emptiness of the perfect family and perfect surroundings are touched on again in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite, building on the fundamentals set in stone by his 2009 breakout feature and catapulting both his name and style into the mainstream sphere.

When being interviewed for Poor Things by The Guardian in late 2023, Lanthimos opened up about his sense of humor and what makes him laugh. He specifically pinpoints awkward human interaction as the key to his funny bone, something all the more apparent when watching the characters in his films try and mostly fail looking and feeling the part of even being human, much less making such connections with others.

The same interview also reveals how Lanthimos himself didn’t initially pick up on the glaring similarities between Poor Things and Dogtooth, eventually coming to realize that the former is a spiritual sequel/spinoff of the latter. Both films touch on created family and how perspective can be warped and manipulated as early as childbirth (or in Poor Things’s Bella Baxter’s case, rebirth). The films both heavily rely on the comedy that can arise from that idea, mainly in the form of social interaction and learning about the complex clumsiness of the real world.

Dogtooth may not be Yorgos Lanthimos at his most refined, but there is a rawness to his artificial world in the film that is far scarier than people will give it credit for. A type of horror that does not seek to scare or even unsettle us. The horror is in the concept of children living in a fake world and how casually they go about believing the lies of their parents. The kind of horror that can bleed chuckles from the audience in response to incestuous games, cat violence, human barking, and physical violence stemming from VHS tapes.

Dogtooth is the kind of quiet disruption that Lanthimos would carry with him to Hollywood, making it the ground zero for what would be a successful and odd career. It may not be his first feature, but it’s the film that made people take notice of the wonderfully weird Greek director. Over a decade later and we are still seeing the DNA of Dogtooth in his films. But no matter how much his filmmaking and budget have improved over the years, it’s important to never forget the fundamentals – which is that humans do not and will never know how to talk to each other.

And sometimes you just can’t help but laugh at the thought.

Originally Published Here.

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