Thoughts On: Dogtooth
The story of a three children raised in a house they can never leave under the ludicrous, world-dictating rules of their father.
One of my favourite films of all time, Dogtooth is a picture that uses, like no other, absurdity as a device to project the most poignant of truths. It is under the theme of childhood and growing up that Lanthimos has constructed a narrative I cannot surmise in simple terms. At best, I can say that this is a mesmerising filmic experience, one injected with a philosophical awe and emotional befuddlement. One the surface, this film is little more than discombobulated farce, but if one steps into Lanthimos’ world, sees the film in the right light, then this becomes one of the purest and most articulate films ever. It must be noted here, however, that this is certainly a film many won’t like, won’t get and will never have the patience for. For me though, this film resonates so deeply as it seems to embody my kind of thought processing – one that aims to be mechanical and without confines. Dogtooth then represents the epitome of ‘personal favourite’, leaving me fighting a lost battle with some as I praise and try to explain it. So, to anyone who has seen this film, you have been warned; you may completely disagree with me, hate the movie, like it in a different respect. But, to those who haven’t seen the film, definitely give it a go before reading any further as I’ll be going through the film in its entirety.
Ok, to dive into this film, I will have to draw upon my old psychology lessons to give you a crash course in a few concepts – those being conditioning and a wider idea of social exchange. John B. Watson, an American psychologist – arguably one of the most important – established of an approach to psychology called Behaviourism. This branch of psychology is best defined by its assumption that people’s experiences define them and so the world’s stimuli build and dictate who we are as people. This simple statement gives rise to an idea of conditioning. One of the most famous examples of this is of course Pavlov’s Dog…
As you may already know, this experiment manipulates a dog’s innate reflexes in favour of a trainer or psychologist. As you see in the first image, a dog will salivate when they see/smell food. This is simply because salivation is the dog’s biological prep for eating (saliva breaking down food and lubricating passageways). What the second image demonstrates is that a dog will not salivate when hearing a bell because there’s no biological reason to. However, if you continually ring a bell whenever you feed a dog, you pair the active and inert stimuli in the dog’s mind. What this teaches them is that the bell equals food and so you better get ready to eat. After a prelonged exposure to this routine, you will be able to just ring a bell without food and still have a dog salivate. This seems like a very basic idea, one that you could have guessed without even hearing about the experiment, but, as Watson inferred, this is a profound realisation.
What Pavlov’s experiment proves (to a certain degree) is that your biological functions, who you are, is a product of experience and external stimuli and so can be manipulated in any way. Examples we see of this everyday are in the training of dogs. This practice of conditioning is what allows trainers to get dogs to defend homes, not shit all over the place and obey orders. However, it must be noted that the kind of conditioning utilised by trainers is often operant (also referred to as instrumental). The conditioning represented with Pavolv’s dog is classical, not operant. The difference between the two is all to do with innatism. Pavlov’s dog unconsciously salivates and has no conscious learning from experience – such makes his conditioning classical. But, when you rub a dog’s nose in their shit or give them a treat for chasing a ball, you are operantly conditioning them. This is because there’s a reward and punishment system in place whereby the dog can consciously learn and develop certain behaviours. This phenomena is exactly what is referenced in Dogtooth with a dog’s training being something of a sub-plot.
The subtext of this should be transparent enough with this:
However, this is something we will return to. The crux of the first part of our crash course in conditioning is something said by one of the dog trainers:
Dog’s are like clay; you just need to mould them.
What this statement (as it goes on) mimics are John B. Watson’s most famous words:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select–doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.
This defines the entire motivation of the parents in this film; an adherence to behaviorist philosophy. They believe that they can take their 3 healthy children, bring them into their own specified world and raise them to be whatever they desire.
Behaviorism, however, is only half of what you need to grasp to understand this film. By understanding classical and operant conditioning, you can come to terms with the plot of the film and the surface of subtext, but, to truly step into Lanthimos’ world, you have to come to terms with social exchange also. Social exchange theory is a concept mainly utilised by marriage and relationship counsellors. The basic point made by this theory is that relationships work and are quantified by a positive and negative exchange of actions. In short, if you’re late to pick your wife up from some place, you’ve thrown negative points into the relationship pot. As a consequence of this, she’s not too happy with you and might snap at you later on, throwing more negative coins into the relationship pot. This can go on and on, resulting in arguments, fights, disagreements and maybe the destruction of a relationship – all because you were late to pick her up one time. However, this tiny event shouldn’t snowball out of control. By saying sorry, making her dinner or watching a movie she likes, you throw positive points into the relationship pot. This stabilises things, allowing the relationship to continue on good legs. This management of positive and negative points is thus exactly what a relationship is. That is, this exchange is the crux of every relationship you have – whether it’s with a passing stranger, your boss or nephew. This, like conditioning, is another profound concept.
What social exchange theory outlines are the mechanics of every moment of human interaction. Despite this being such a simple equation and means of understanding human interaction, people don’t seem to grasp it and this idea is not given the spotlight it deserves. What I mean to imply here is that there are so many problems in our lives and in the world that are dealt with semi-consciously, seemingly without an understanding of other people. This is because social exchange as a concept is something we all understand, but only subconsciously. Moreover, we often let the self-centric crux of this idea blind us. What I mean to suggest with this is that social exchange theory is such a prevalent and purposeful concept as it demonstrates that all human action is for the purpose of survival. The only reason we do things is to stay alive. Beyond this, we fight to live a life full of those positive points as they are an indicator of social success. In such, you see the purpose of sustaining social interaction in being a maintenance of ones chances of living with a crowd of people as help. However, as touched on, there is another wider form of survival – one that just means to survive as an individual. This inclination is what drives people to be anti-social and also explains why some can find purpose in a solitary life, or one where they’re a dick to everyone. What is demonstrated by societies across the world in the way they behave is that there’s not an open discussion of this as a fact of human behaviour. This is what I personally believe to be the hurdle we’ll overcome as a global society to welcome a new age of thinking and living. This is because we will understand each other, won’t act on blind emotion and constantly be confused as to why people are the way they are.
Nonetheless, social exchange is pivotal to Dogtooth as this narrative is, in essence, a lesson in its mechanics. In fact, almost all of Lanthimos’ films demonstrate this lesson. The absurdity in them is there to directly project the positive and negative points being thrown between people. A great example of this in Dogtooth would be the scene where the eldest daughter fights the son over the aeroplane…
In the simplest terms, the oldest daughter wants this toy and so does the brother because of the high value placed on it by the parents. They fight for this as an expression of this want. The brother, being bigger and stronger, is liable to win this fight. Knowing this, the older sister throws the toy where neither of them can have it…
… as a further expression of her anger in defeat she then slices open her brother’s forearm…
… making the due punishment of her mum worthwhile – at least, easier to take. This, outside of Lanthimos’ world, is fucked up; signs of insanity. However, to comprehend this absurd reaction, you only have to recognise that it is meant to be a clear projection of social exchange in the event of an argument over possession. In such, this event represents something as banal as your wife picking up the remote and changing the channel as she walks into the room – saying nothing to you and just putting on whatever she wants. The argument that you spark is tantamount to the older daughter throwing the aeroplane away as it makes the prize, the TV, out of everyone’s reach. The crescendoing argument culminating in a fight that has her storm off to bed is then pretty much the arm slicing – the punishment of a lack of sex being soothed by the fact that you get to sit back and watch whatever you want all night.
This clarity of social exchange is the eloquent crux of Dogtooth. However, when we bring this psychological theory together with ideas of conditioning, we can push deep into the fibres of this narrative.
As we’ve established, this film is essentially about parents trying to train their children to be the adults they desire. By paying attention to the social exchange of the narrative, we can come to terms with the oldest daughter’s arc that ends up with her escaping.
What this opening, a recorded lesson teaching the children the ‘meaning’ of words, introduces is the control of the parents. They literally shape their children’s lives by taking from them a concept of motorway or sea to replace it with more banal and confined ideas of the wind and an arm chair. This restricts the children’s conception of the world to their house and the natural elements that run through it that the parent’s cannot control. In such, it is implied that the children will never know what a country is, what the globe is and how civilisation has developed to inhabit it. This all seems to be commentary on the role of a parent. It is essentially your job to prepare a small human for a shade of the world. What this means is that you are shaping them into a truck driver, a banker, a writer, a stripper. This, to all parents’ relief, is only partly true. Parents kick the motor into gear in the early years of a child’s life and by the time they’re a teen, they should be starting to drive on and shape themselves without you. Nonetheless, the importance of a child’s formative years cannot be overlooked – and this is what the parents in this film have a death-grip on. They never want to let the kids go. The conflict this stirs is articulated by the game the youngest daughter proposes after the ‘lesson’. She wants to play a game of endurance where whoever can hold their finger under a hot tap for the longest is victorious. This game is a nice demonstration of something I picked up on in Jackass.
The essence of Jackass and content alike is its demonstration of a child’s will to kill their self out of boredom. It seems that all children, teens especially, have this self-destructive streak in them which allows them to test personal boundaries and grow from duress as well as get a spark of existential friction in coming close to death as a means of knowing they’re alive. This is the essence of the siblings holding their fingers under the hot water – a symbol of their agitation and yearning for space to grow. What this then conveys is their core conflict of growing pains – the fact that they feel the hands of their parent’s moulding them. This, of course, is true for no one more than it is the eldest daughter. This is why she’s so curious, always listening to her mother ‘talk to herself’ in her bedroom.
Before we can move on with her arc, however, the film introduces us to Christina.
This security guard has an agreement with the father to have sex with the son every week or so (for money). This is all part of the father’s need to distract the children. He biologically manipulates his son by providing him Christina. This comes to be understood on a more thematic level later in the narrative after Christina is found out to have given the oldest daughter video tapes. Because the father cannot trust her and won’t let anyone into the house, he has the son choose between his two sisters who he wants to use. He of course chooses his older sister. The only reason, beyond sexual preference, I can see for this is a power play. As touched on, these two have a competitive nature between them – the aeroplane scene being a good example. The son using his sister to essentially just cum is his way of asserting dominance. She recognises this and doesn’t like it. This is why she says, after they’re done, ‘you do that again, bitch, I’ll rip your guts out’. After this line she makes a reference to ‘clans’, saying that she ‘swears on her daughters life’ that if her brother has sex with her again his clan won’t last long. This is such a pivotal line as it shows that both siblings have thoughts of having their own families and leaving the nest. This all underlines the early scene with Christina. By the dad supplying her to his son, he’s subduing his inclination to procreate and so is preventing and controlling the possibilities of him building a family. It’s having said this that we have to then question the title of the film, Dogtooth.
It is explained to the children that once their dogtooth (a canine) falls out, their body is ready to face the dangers that lurk beyond the house – dangers like a cat…
However, they can only leave the house the car, and may only learn to drive when their dogtooth grows back. This is such an insane premise because, a) an adult’s canine tooth shouldn’t fall out, and, b) even if it does, it won’t grow back. This is what implies that the father has absolutely zero intentions of ever letting his kids go. There is further evidence for this in the song he sings as the oldest daughter clips his toenails.
I lost you and my spring departed
Filled with sorrow the stars and the birds cry
Grey is dusk and grey my soul
And all is sorrowful because you are lost
Where are you now, my love
Where are you roaming
For all this time
Where are you now, my love
I searched and searched for you
Yet I do not find you
These lyrics hold three levels of subtext. The first is an implication of why the parents have done all they have to their kids. In such, you can see these lyrics as an exposition of the fear the parents hold of letting their children go. This is a basic reading of the song in general, but when you consider this image…
… we can dig through to another second level of subtext. The parents have told their children that they have a brother on the other side of the fence. This may be another lie; a means of the parents controlling the kids and holding them to a certain standard. An example of this would be in the image above. The son speaks to his brother saying that he washes the car better than he ever has. In such, there is an intangible competition that the parents may have introduced with an idea of a brother existing beyond the fence. This is strengthened when the parents construct a lie of the mother being pregnant with two children and a dog. This has two purposes. The first is to tell the kids that their dog is coming back. The parents need to lie here as the children will question where the dog was and where it came from. The mother giving birth is a way of jumping past this, implying some kind of magic. What you will also find though is that this a commentary on the traditional family. The mother’s singular purpose is to bring life into the world, whereas the father brings all material things into the home. This is a detail of the narrative which opens up its assessment of childhood to a wider context. Nonetheless, the second reason for the parents constructing the lie of two twins and a dog coming to the house is to warn the kids that they better behave or they’ll have to share their rooms and toys. We can infer from this caveat, ‘behave and I won’t give birth to siblings you have to share a room with’, that the mother was never planning to have a child and so probably has a habit controlling children with ideas like this. This may be what the brother on the other side of the bush is.
However, I do not think that this is the case, plain and simple. It makes sense that the parents utilise the brother in this respect, but I believe that he also implies the hidden truth of these lyrics:
I lost you and my spring departed
Filled with sorrow the stars and the birds cry
Gray is dusk and gray my soul
And all is sorrowful because you are lost
Where are you now, my love
Where are you roaming
For all this time
Where are you now, my love
I searched and searched for you
Yet I do not find you
These lyrics imply that the parents have lost a child already – maybe this is the brother on the other side of the fence. This makes so much sense as it fills the biggest hole in this narrative; what are the parent’s motivation? It seems to be that they lost a child, one that ran away…
… and never returned. This would explain why they are such control freaks when it comes to their three children. We see strengthening evidence this inference (the parents losing a child) in a small scene where the dad is at his office. His work colleague asks him about his wife and he restates that she had an accident and that she is confined to a wheelchair. The undertones of this imply a reason as to why the work colleague never sees her and the father is always in the home. But, there is subtext of loss in the way the father provides this excuse. Maybe the wheelchair is a euphemism for the loss of their child. However, beyond theories of lost children, the parent’s freakish relationship with control implies a cycle. As we know, the oldest sister ambiguously escapes in the end of the film. Whilst there are questions of what happens to her – questions we’ll later raise – the purpose of the narrative seem to imply a cycle of loss. The parents can’t help but loose their children to the world as they simply grow away from them as the oldest sister does.
Having delved into what dogtooth actually means, we know understand what the parents’ intentions are and the cycle their inner conflicts of loss invigorate. They mean to keep their children as children – perpetually so – so that they may enjoy a familial existence with perfect children until they die. What is thus the overshadowing force of this film is the parent’s inner conflict. They don’t want to move on in life, they don’t want to loose their children. In such, they want to keep a hold of representations of their existence – ones that continue past their deaths. In such, what overshadows the narrative is the parent’s existential predicament. This predicament is one most probably felt amongst most parents. It is the faith and pride felt in a child as an extension of yourself. What we see across the vast bulk of this story, through the parents, is then the building of motivation for the oldest daughter to leave because of their overzealous fixation on controlling her. There are then three major elements that urge her to leave. The first is a discomfort. We have already touched on this with the opening tap scene. The kids are bored out of their minds and want to test their boundaries, want to feel pain, want to do something. This is why they put their fingers under the tap, knock themselves out with anaesthesia and fight one another. What this draws upon is the first major element of the film, behaviourism. What we see in respect to the children’s discomfort in the home is a culmination of routine and conditioning. They are made to live in a world defined by their father’s rule. This is an idea referenced many times throughout the film with the children learning new words, words like ‘zombie’ and ‘pussy’ – the subtext of this should be transparent enough. We see further references to the dad’s world building having effect with the cat scene, but also its later consequences. The younger daughter is the most gullible of the children. Late at night, she hits her brother with a hammer and claims a cat did it. Why she does this is a question I’m not sure I have the answer to. The only one I can offer come with this scene…
The dad plants three fish in the pool for him to catch and everyone to eat (presumably). When the youngest daughter comes across them, she calls to her father telling him that there are two fish in the pool. When he’s ready to catch them he tells her that there’s three fish, but she suggests that maybe one more appeared. In this small moment we see that she has been completely sucked into the dad’s constructed world. The hammer scene with the cat may be a violent extension of this. Maybe she believe her own bullshit so much, or maybe she’s pandering to her dad. There is also the possibility that she used the cat as an excuse to hit her brother – why, I’m not sure. In the end, this moment is up for interpretation.
Nonetheless, the point I was making is that there are many elements in this film that demonstrate the contrivance of the world the children live in. And within in this the children feel discomfort and such is a major aspect of the oldest’s character arc. She feels the behaviourist construction and contortion of her parents and does not like it.
Another element of the oldest daughter’s character arc is social exchange. As we see throughout the film, there is a fight for dominance. Again…
However, for thematic cohesion, the central question of social exchange falls under the guise of sexuality. As we’ve touched on, the father uses sexuality to control his son and manipulate the children’s expectations of life. What this snowballs into, through Christina, is a nasty build of negative social exchanges. It all starts here…
Christina, as established, is used by the father and the son. Despite her getting paid, she’s not comfortable with this. Feeling the weakness of being used as little more than a cum bucket she asks the son to go down on her. He doesn’t want to do this. We can assume that this is because he doesn’t see the point; he doesn’t get anything from her feeling pleasure and doesn’t want to change the power dynamics of their relationship. To feel some sense of power and respect in this house Christina then turns to the older daughter, knowing that she may exploit her for oral pleasure…
… however, this eventually backfires…
In seeking greater stature, more positive points of social exchange in this household, Christina opens herself to a relationship that the oldest daughter may eventually exploit her by asking for the videos. Before we can finish this point on social exchange in the character arc of the oldest daughter, we have to pick up on the third and final element of her character arc.
This last element is about curiosity. The oldest daughter distrusts her parents, she knows that something is going on in this house. This is why she listens in on her mother as she’s on the phone and later seeks it out. Moreover, this is why questions what the porn tape was and decides she must see one one of these foreign tapes. This is something set up early in the narrative with the family watching old tapes of themselves as a entertainment. This transforms forms cinema, art, a means of communicating between people, into a banal means of introspection. We see this many times throughout the narrative. The children never watch real movies, just recordings of themselves – something that arguably negates the whole concept of films. Moreover, when they listen to music, their ‘granddad’ singing, their father translates the words from English into something that fits his narrative. Another example of the confining of art can be seen here…
Just like the son can play the guitar (one singular and repeating riff) he can paint too. However, his painting seems to be confined to self-portraiture–maybe painting his father. And so again, we are seeing art being used in futile contexts. Instead of being used as a means of exploration, communication and so on, art is reduced to a mere skill or distraction. This is true of painting and music as well as the video tapes, which is what brings us back to this…
Out of curiosity, the oldest daughter gets hold of some tapes and watches them. As we later find out through her repeating phrases from the films and acting them out…
… she watched Jaws and Rocky IV. (Are there better films to introduce you to cinema?).
These films aren’t just fun references, however, the oldest daughter’s curiosity has paid off with a link to social exchange again. What these films teach her is that the underdog can win…
… and that animals, even the scariest of all, can be overcome by the average Joe…
I believe this is what invigorates her and gives her the courage to think about leaving the house. This demonstrates the significance of the oldest daughter giving herself the name ‘Bruce’. Not only is this a reference to Jaws (the shark being Bruce) but she has a name where she has never had one before – at least not to our knowledge. Thus, we see in this scene a key milestone in her personal growth. However, something stunts this. Not only is she found out…
… with a sparkling example of dark humour, but, the consequence of her curiosity inadvertently leads to this…
What we are reintroduced to here is ideas of social exchange, again, meeting themes of sexuality. The control and subjugation of the father in a sexual sense is the final straw for the oldest daughter. This is so significant as it begins to explain why, thematically, the oldest daughter runs away. As we touched on, the parents put themselves into a cycle with their control. Just as they maybe drove away (maybe just lost to maturation) a child before the older daughter, they are driving the children they have with them away too. The sexual undertones to this thus point to idea of ‘clans’ and the children having families of their own. The older daughter runs away because she feels like an adult, one who shouldn’t be punished (operantly conditioned) by her parents. This implies that the same thing will happen with the two younger siblings if the parents continue with this control – especially in a sexual sense. It must be emphasised here, however, that the implications of sex are not only to do with a control of ones body and children, but also existential fulfillment. By the parents keeping their offspring as perpetual children they are holding onto their life in another body – a form of existential propagation. However, in doing this, they also stunt the children’s own propagation of self. In such, the parents stop the kids from living and continuing their life on through their own children.
This is the crux of the snowballing negative social exchanges. What we see out play between parent and daughter in subtext is an existential battle questioning ones own existence. This is arguably the crux of many disagreements between late teens and their parents. With the control they demonstrate over their children, parents are (though it seems like trivial teen moaning) dictating their life and existence. This is the truth of growing up with a terrible social exchanges with your parents – and this is precisely what Dogtooth stands as a transparent commentary on.
Before we can leave the film, there is one more thing to break down and understand. The oldest daughter only leaves the home having taken out her ‘dogtooth’…
What this draws upon is the poignancy of this image:
The father’s conditioning has worked. If the oldest daughter truly felt free, she would just leave the house, not bust her face open as to adhere to her dad’s rules. What we then can’t forget here is the subplot of the dog’s training…
The father says, having given up looking for the oldest daughter, that he’s going to pick up the dog that should have been trained by now, tomorrow. What this juxtaposition of conditioned growth between the oldest daughter and the family dog implies is that the dad has always been in control and that the lessons he constructs in his world are long-lasting. What this ultimately does is leave this image as a final question to the viewer…
This image not only asks us what the oldest daughter will do having escaped the house, but it ask how will she do it, how will she live. If she has been conditioned successful (to a certain degree) by her dad, will she end up constructing a household much like he did? Or, will she learn from her parent’s insanity and maybe not do as they did to her to her own children?
I think the true question here is: does she have a choice?
This is the commentary on childhood that Dogtooth makes. It makes the powerful assertion that our childhoods profoundly effect the way we grow up and who we become – especially as parents. It has us question if we’ll ever be able to break the cycle of our parent’s upbringing. What’s more, this film asks, as I alluded to before, if people, we, society, will ever grasp ideas of both social exchange and behaviorism as the profound psychological phenomena that they are. This seems to be the case as the only way the oldest daughter, who will probably escape this trunk and start a new life, will be able to raise her kids productively would be to comprehend how fucked up her childhood was because of the insane application of behaviourist theory her parents subjected her to. What’s more, understanding who she is and why under behaviourist terms may allow her to reverse or at least comes to terms with herself. This is all so important for her kids. By remaining only semi-consciously aware of this concept of behaviourism she will take her negative social exchange system she developed with her parents and continue it with her children. In such, by not comprehending the ways her parents destroyed the relationship between themselves and her, she will end up applying the same destructive emotions and approaches to her parenting. Is this what she’s doomed to do? Is this what all people are doomed to do?
Such seems to be the question of the film’s propagating wave of a logo…
In conclusion, Lanthimos paints a profound picture of childhood and questions how we may overcome it, for the sake of our children, with psychological ideas of conditioning and social exchange theory. Now you see the film in this light, what are your thoughts?
Performance – Into The Mirror
Falling Leaves – Narrative & Theme
More from me: