[I sent some of these thoughts to an esteemed colleague and close associate to see if he wanted to engage in some sparkling repartee on the subject, but he said he needs to watch it again, and also expressed some skepticism about my very premise that Dogtooth is going to be discussed by people like us a decade from now. Nonetheless, here’s my response to some guy who was wrong on a podcast somewhere.]
It’s been interesting to watch Dogtooth gradually attain cult-film status, hasn’t it? This is a film I saw at the 2009 Three Rivers Film Festival and deemed unique and fascinating, but not much more significant than the Greek film from two years previous, Pink [a dreamy story about an artistic youth in his 20s and his friendship with a young girl, starring its director Alexandros Voulgaris, who we see in one Dogtooth scene as the bored dog trainer]. A year later every amateur critic had an opinion about it, the Flashdance-inspired dance sequence had been used for any number of YouTube mashups, and it was the most peculiar Foreign Film Oscar nominee … ever? Since Antonia’s Line in 1996? Maybe since The White Ribbon last year — that category is not as formulaic as it was.
So, my favorite mainstream-nerd-type podcasts are recommending Dogtooth to their listeners, which is good since it’s better as a shared experience than as something you watch by yourself and go to bed satisfied. I hope it’s now required watching for pretentious members of the Pitt class of 2014, like Battle Royale was for us. But often these recommendations are painting the movie as some sort of harrowing exercise in audience torture. Particularly when someone didn’t get anything out of the movie, like one caller to Filmspotting, who can be paraphrased as saying “I get it, it’s like Funny Games, it made me feel awful, it was supposed to make me feel awful. Congratulations, filmmaker, you made me feel awful, now what exactly was the point.” Or Roger Ebert, whose review concludes with this:
The message I took away was: God help children whose parents insanely demand unquestioning obedience to their deranged standards.
That’s not the message, Roger! It’s certainly not the only message. This of all films you could have expanded on in one of your speculative blog entries, instead of just recounting the plot as if you had watched it with no subtitles. Sometimes I’m embarrassed defending you against the effete and stuffy elitists.
Dogtooth is not just a movie about child abuse or cults. It’s about power but it’s more about control of information, and how that confers power. I thought it was more of an allegory for dictatorship than anything else. What the parents do, they do out of ideology. The father is afraid of his children being corrupted by the outside world, in much the same way the North Korean regime claims to view its people, according to The Cleanest Race. The father trusts nobody and yet he engages in weird compromises with the outside world that are inherently hypocritical, like letting that woman wander around the house unsupervised engaging in acts of commerce, and then claiming that her bringing VHS tapes to his children is an unthinkable betrayal. Obviously he’s unbalanced and destructive, but this doesn’t mean he’s likely to lose his power over others anytime soon.
There is an extreme portrayal of homeschooling here, if you presume that homeschooling is a phenomenon of people who can’t tolerate compromise to their ideology. The parents make the children dependent by spreading myths about dangerous animals and a hidden brother, and their lessons include intentional lies [using the wrong words for things] that have no other effect but to make the children question everything they see in the real world as immediately incompatible with the very basis of their beliefs. This could be compared to an insular religious community, but I tend to think those communities don’t consciously mislead and handicap their children. It’s really more comparable to state-driven propaganda that shifts as the political situation shifts. The world in which the parental authorities decide what a word means, and flatly change that definition once the children get close to appreciating reality, is clearly a microcosm of the world of 1984.
In general I think the film is definitely disturbing, but its disturbingness is more comparable to Brazil than Funny Games or Salo. Nobody in Dogtooth gets any enjoyment from cruelty. And there’s no attempt to implicate the audience in the cruelty. I haven’t seen Salo, I understand it’s a political power allegory as well, but as I understand it, the victims are basically made to perform for the decadent amusement of the villains. As for Funny Games, the idea that Dogtooth is an attempt to make the audience feel bad is way off-base. Haneke is so minimal in his assessment of his own films’ significance that I don’t think he’ll be offended if I say that unlike Dogtooth, Funny Games does in fact have exactly one point, which is that the audience should consider feeling bad for wanting to see people brutally victimized. There’s no audience figure in Dogtooth, and it bears no resemblance to Haneke’s “enact the tropes of a genre you despise, to show how formulaic and worthless they are” approach. It’s more about unpredictability and world-building. Yes, there are protracted scenes of extreme awkwardness, but there’s a lot more scenes that are interesting because their significance is not immediately clear.
What do you think about what Dogtooth is about? Is it in the “grueling endurance test for the audience” category? I don’t think so. Every scene is short. Every scene suggests or resolves a little mystery. It doesn’t force you to look at protracted suffering like Dogville or Bad Guy or even something like Old Boy.There’s a jumble of ideas it wants to give you. One can easily poke holes in the world-building and point out character inconsistencies. Andy Horbal:
I do not believe that each character represents something, and this is part of what I will tentatively call a “lack of rigor” that is one of the reasons the film does not appeal to me. Another for instance: after years of being given incorrect information about what words mean, shouldn’t these children be speaking a completely garbled and unintelligible language all their own by now?
The lack of rigor is something that Bunuel or especially Lars von Trier can often be accused of. Do they contradict themself? Very well, they contradict themself. It’s a combination of story-telling and mood-evoking. The films are conversation pieces, something you can have a disagreement about.
In Dogtooth I also don’t think each character represents something [albeit I don’t remember which daughter did what]. The son is — I’m impressed that he wasn’t being brought up in some sort of Spartan military way, he was quite similar to the daughters in personality and body type. With the mother — clearly there we have the culpability of silence. She says little but she never disagrees with the father in public. She could end this by getting the law involved, and probably would take little punishment, but she backs the status quo. Why? It’s not too late to change things, the daughter who gets into the trunk of the car knows that. The mother may make no statements in support of the regime’s policies, but her actions make it clear what side she’s on.