I want to begin by deciphering the meaning of the film’s iconic logo, used in its opening credits and posters. If we understand the meaning of that image, it will be a lot easier to recognize the message conveyed in this work of cinematic art. Here’s the full image, combined of three elements:
In the film, the logo appears one element at a time. First, the yellow flat line:
Yellow is a color of gold, a measure of social value; of the Sun, the center of the planetary hierarchy, and therefore, of the ruler, the government, and any kind of social system. A flat line, in medical terms, is an attribute of death (no heartbeat); metaphorically, it’s an expression of ethical and personal neutrality. A social being, characterized by the flat line, exists in the state of complete conformity; that being is morally inactive and cannot make mistakes. Neither can it achieve any spiritual heights, so is neither “good” nor “bad” because it’s personality had been reduced to zero.
The yellow flat line on the screen is followed by the red figure that has a certain resemblance of a semi-swastika:
Red is the color of blood, danger, sexuality, suffering (inflicted or experienced); and, very fittingly, red has inevitably been chosen as a color of organized rebellion (whether of French, Russian, Chinese, South American or any other variety). The “semi-swastika” figure grows out of the preceding flat line and retains the flat line as its part, with medium-sized dogtooth-like protuberances growing up and down. The flat line part of the figure points at the compromise at its essence; a state of a human being, illustrated by that figure, is that of an excruciating conflict between the need for freedom and the urge to follow rules. The figure illustrate a painful and futile attempt at self-liberation, marred by fear.
Finally, after the red “semi-swastika” figure, the blue sinusoid appears:
Blue: the color of sky, freedom, and spirituality; the color of God. The sinusoid represents the full range of fulfilled human potential and experience in all its aspects, achievable only to those few who can let go of their slavery to the yellow flat line. The blue sinusoid is the ideal state of spiritual freedom that wasn’t achieved by anyone we see onscreen in “Dogtooth”. (There may be a small probability that such spiritual freedom had been achieved by the absent character of the “escaped brother”.)
In this essay I want to focus on the themes and idea of “Dogtooth”, but I can’t help praising it, even if only briefly, for its aesthetic qualities. The authors (Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou) must have thoroughly brainstormed the subject matter. The film explores every aspect of its material, and maintains the steady supply of freshly shocking scenes. The son killing a cat with pruning shears. The setup of vicious guard dogs in the dog training sequence, and the visual “punch line” of a tiny, confused, intimidated white mutt, the owner barking at it: “Rex! Rex! Rex!”. The whole family barking mad (literally). And just as you think the film can’t avoid repeating itself any longer, it shocks you even more. Fish in the swimming pool. “Grandfather’s” song. Father and mother mouthing words. A wedding anniversary dance by the two sisters. Delightful!
Even though most of the action in “Dogtooth” contained within one family (and within one house and yard), it’s not a movie about interactions between parents and children or husbands and wives (even though the truths formulated in this dark comedy without a trace of a smile can be applied to family relationships, too). The family in the film serves as a model of oppressive society… not that there can be a society that is not oppressive. (Using the microcosm of a family to express ideas pertinent to society isn’t anything new in film history; “The Shining” (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick, is one of the most famous examples.)
The limitations imposed by society bring about numerous psychological and behavioral aberrations in people under strain: masochism and sadism (“the game of endurance”, cutting off the feet, hands and nose of a doll, and the “attack of a cat armed with a hammer” sequence); ferocious, predatory competitiveness (fighting over toy airplanes); infantilism (for example, in the episode where the son, who could be in his thirties, can’t sleep because of the full moon and climbs into his parents bed); lack of confidence and self-esteem (the siblings’ vocal delivery and body language are remarkable in their expression of expecting punishment for any wrong move). Incest is promoted for the sake of integrity and safety of the family.
Fear and misinformation are the most important instruments of the oppressor. Subjects consumed by fear will have to obey the ruler. We’re all well familiar with how it works. “The cat is the most dangerous animal there is. We have to be ready in case it invades the house or a garden.” (We’re so used to security guards handling the contents of our bags in libraries, museums and theaters – the guards who don’t really look into our bags; we’re so used to taking off our shoes and approaching metal detectors in airports barefoot – that we think of these idiotic rituals as something normal and don’t even feel humiliated by them anymore. How shameful!) Misinformation requires certain effort, but in the long run is almost as effective as fear: the father who removes the labels from water bottles and spear-hunts the live fish he put in the swimming pool, and the mother who narrates the modified vocabulary lessons for her children are bound to be obeyed and respected as the ultimate authority figures.
Society promotes competition and administers tests. The winner of any competition is predetermined, and the purpose of the tests is not so much to gauge the compliance of the subject with the social standards, as to impose those standards. The very act of testing, followed by qualification, is the event where the rules to be complied with are introduced and ingrained in the minds. Whenever you’re subjected to any type of testing: whether IQ tests or other forms of psychometric and aptitude tests, or any kind of personality questionnaires, be aware that you are being molded into the norm, and some part of your inherent originality is being destroyed. The people of the system who give you the tests are trying to enforce their authority over your mind by testing you. Tests eliminate your originality, they transform you into a mediocrity that is easy to control. Things like “high IQ” , or even “high emotional IQ” are not really indicators of true intelligence, and the intelligence itself is not the indicator of your true value. Those are just social mechanisms to assign a label and a place in the grid for you. Any talents you may have – whether to drawing, music or medicine – will be placed in service of the system.
Aside from tests, there are more direct ways of imposing notions on minds. Society does that non-stop, defining our reality for us and adding ageism, sexism and multiple other “isms” to our perception: “What’s the most creative age of a man?” – “Between 30 and 40!” – “What’s the most creative age of a woman?” – “Between 20 and 30!” Names of those who managed to escape the influence of the system are used to instill more fear: “Your brother was killed because he leaved the safety of our house”. Entertainment offers one of the most effective methods of brainwashing. The scene in which the father uses “Fly me to the moon” (sung by the British Frank Sinatra impersonator Fred Gardner) as an indoctrination tool can serve a great illustration of the mechanism. (Ever wondered why true art of intellectual cinema barely survives in dilapidated “art-houses” while some idiocy like “Saw XXVII” boldly occupies large screens in cineplexes? It’s not because commercially successful intellectual cinema isn’t viable; it’s because society needs dull, witless entertainment to keep you stupid. Our entertainment movies work much in the same way as Goebbels’ propaganda films.)
Society applies “dog training” methods to human beings, keeping us imprisoned until we pass the “stage 5” of our training: complete submission, total elimination of our inherent characters, pure social function: a zombie.
But that’s not the worst; and that’s where we approach the message of the film.
Society has a safety mechanism against the rebel types. There are rules for the rebellion. In “Dogtooth”, the older daughter falls into a trap of rebelling “by the book”: similarly to the group of characters in Luis Buñuel’s “El ángel exterminador” (1962), she can’t just force herself to walk out of the gate; she finds in necessary to execute the program installed in her mind by society. The scene in which the older daughter knocks out her tooth with a dumbbell and then locks herself in a trunk of her father’s car, illustrates the heroic pains a typical rebel takes, hoping to break free from the system, but in reality blindly following the explicit commands provided by that system. Think of how often we put ourselves through painful acts of fulfilling what society imposes as the conditions for our freedom: we go out of our way to free ourselves, but do it according to the rules determined by society (through hard work, humiliation or any other type of self-inflicted suffering). The scene of knocking out the dogtooth demonstrates the illusory nature of any initiation ritual and oppression at the core of any mythology in service of society.
The original Greek title of this film is Κυνόδοντας, (Kynodontas), it’s produced by Iraklis Mavroidis, Athina Rachel Tsangari and Yorgos Tsourianis at Boo Productions in 2009.