Dogtooth (Kynodontas) is the third feature directed by Giorgas Lanthimos. Released in 2009, it received international acclaim, winning the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes before being nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite these accolades, Dogtooth is a film that many will find unsettling, disturbing even. While it features scenes of incest and violence, this is not, in my view, the source of the discomfort viewers will feel. This is, rather, due to the fact that Dogtooth is what I will call a philosophical film.
Dogtooth is the story of a family: father, mother, two daughters, and a son. Together they live in an average home with an expansive garden. However, this is no ‘normal’ family. Around the entire compound is a high fence keeping them from the outside world (and the outside world from them). The only people who ever leave or enter the compound are the father (who travels to work each day) and Christina, an outsider Father brings home occasionally to sate the sexual desires of his teenage son. The children are led to believe that the only way to leave the compound is in the car – to protect them from flesh-eating cats – and then only once the ‘dogtooth’ has fallen out and grown back again.
The strange world that the children inhabit becomes apparent early in the film as we see them sitting in a bathroom, listening to a tape recording. We later discover that the tape is produced by the parents who provide alternative definitions for troublesome words from the outside world, adding to the internal coherence of the new world they have created.
The new words of the day are: Sea …highway …roadtrip …and shotgun.
Sea is the leather chair with wooden armrests like the one in the living room.
Example: Don’t remain standing, sit down in the sea to have a chat.
Highway is a very strong wind.
Roadtrip is highly durable material used to make floors.
Example: The chandelier fell and smashed itself on the floor but the floor was not damaged, because it’s made of 100% roadtrip.
Due to its release coinciding with the publicity surrounding the Fritzl case, many saw Dogtooth as a fictional account of similar abuse and confinement. However, this is denied by Lanthimos and, in fact, the film was already in production when news of the horrendous captivity of Elizabeth Fritzl broke. It is also possible to see the film as political allegory, as Lanthimos states:
If you’re making a film where you’re aware it raises issues, of course it is a political film. I didn’t make it for the dictatorship in Greece, like some people say, or another totalitarian state, but I do understand that this could make people think about these issues. After we wrote the script, I did realize that this film—and that’s why I was interested in making it—is about how much you can really control people’s minds, and with the information you’re giving people, how much they can have a distorted view of the world. So of course, on the next level, that can really be about media, or the information that leaders give their countries or whatever. Of course it’s about all these things; it depends on the people who watch it what they make of it. That’s the most important thing for me, to be able to watch a film and then think about all these other things.
Dogtooth can, then, be considered as a criticism of extreme paternalism, and people will, undoubtedly, make comparisons with states such as North Korea. However tempting it is to view the film in this way – as allowing us to consider the strangeness and abnormality of the world inhabited by the children in the film, Elizabeth Fritzl, or the majority of North Koreans – this is not what marks it as especially philosophical. Rather, the philosophical merit of Dogtooth is that it forces us to think, not about the erroneous beliefs of others, but about how we justify the beliefs that we ourselves accept. Dogtooth, in presenting us with the world of the compound, causes us to question our own epistemic situation.
The scenario in Dogtooth is reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Here, Plato asks us to consider humanity as prisoners chained from birth in an underground cave, able to see nothing but moving shadows cast on the back wall. These shadows – cast by people carrying shapes along a road that runs in front of a fire – they take to be reality. According to the world that the parents have created, the children’s beliefs and actions are justified – they are entirely coherent within their particular belief system. It may be easy for us to see that they are in a state of error; we are, after all, aware of the fabrication the parents have created. The problem is that, with regards to ourselves, we have no such privileged view and are liable to accept our own belief system in much the same way as they do theirs.
As such, by witnessing their illusory state, we are led to an unsettling conclusion regarding our own apparent certainty. How do we know that our beliefs are not mere shadow and illusion? What about the key concepts and beliefs that structure our world? Where do these come from and how do we justify them? It is Dogtooth‘s ability to engender this kind of sceptical doubt in us that marks it out as philosophical.
Dogtooth will be screened as part of the first Filmosophy season at the Edinburgh Filmhouse cinema in 2013. For further details and to book online, go to the Filmhouse website: http://www.filmhousecinema.com/seasons/filmosophy/