Zeus At His Word

Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth

published in Film Comment Vol.46 No.2, New York 2010

From the cultic narratives of Homer and Thesiod, to their dramatic embellishment in Hellenistic and Roman poetry, Greek mythology constitutes an anti-body to fundamentalism. The latter takes a sacred text ‘at its word’ to be truth; the former accepts ‘what is said’ as lies. The embrace of mythical meaning over the subscription to religious belief entails an acceptance of the fabrication of myth – of the malleable way in which it can resemble situations and occurrences if one so desires. No wonder cinema born of Hollywood’s dream machinery so salaciously declares its ‘mythical’ origins of narrative. Equally obvious is how hollow are those films which make the greatest claims to mythological lineage in their tale-spinning.

But maybe the tales of the Gods and the mortals with whom they toyed ring hollow for a reason. Maybe they are nothing but lies engineered out of paranoia and maintained out of desperation. Zeus might simply be an impotent patriarch living in a manicured paradise within which his family are programmed to play their part in his megalomaniac theatre of possession. If so, then the grandest Greek mythological film might be Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009).

As with all myths, plot and action in Dogtooth merge with extreme economy. A middle-aged man and his wife have interred their three teenage children in an idyllic outer-outer-suburban mansion surrounded by a domineering wall. The teenagers have never ventured outside, and through a truly deluded approach to home-schooling are educated in the ways of the world. The film reconstructs a frightening assemblage of Thesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days as we see the father manipulate the children’s perception, indoctrinate them with his delusional power and delimit the ways in which they comprehend their own behaviour.

The key to sensing this film’s chilling aura is in its reliance on the oral, the vocal and the acoustic. For just as myth springs from oral poetic traditions (and is thereby allowed variation and modulation), so does Dogtooth’s narrative formulate both the depiction of its patriarchal prison and the shifting of power within its domain. The father dictates outlandish missives, truisms and explications into a cheap cassette recorder like a series of Homeric verses, which the children spend the day learning and memorising. Indeed, their life is based on digesting and regurgitating all manner of oral instruction, as if they themselves are but spirits of mythical discourse born on the breath of their God. After earning a special treat, they get to choose the evening’s entertainment and watch a recent video recording of themselves having fun. One of the daughters orates in perfect synch every casually unperformed word in the random actions of the video’s diaristic portraiture. Like the Stepford children in a Passolini movie, the effect is unexpectedly disturbing. But being teenagers, no amount of thought-policing, media-desaturation or mental-programming can still their dreams and demands, generating the film’s pitch-perfect monochord of tense inaction.

Dogtooth is a tersely modernist film – which these days is more radical than one would presume. This is most notable in the delivery of dialogue. The actors’ performances wonderfully embody how Lanthimos has directed them to be directed by their father. Each word they utter, each glance they steal, each thought hidden behind their impassive countenance captures the frailty with which they fearfully venture forward with the most mundane of everyday activities. Like a documentary of a Brechtian version of idyllic Greek youth frolicking in the garden of delights, the film echoes Pier Passolini’s torturous Salo (1975), Margeuritte Duras’ mind-bending Destroy, She Said (1969), and Straub and Huillet’s perplexing Not Reconciled (1965). Dogtooth conjures a transfixing cinematic stage upon which the playing-out of myth complexly fuses with the social acting-out of social norms. When the father teases the children with the law that they may venture beyond the wall once their canine tooth has grown and fallen out, he sets the scene for demonstrating how the children take their Zeus ‘at his word’, symbolically returning myth to its oral poetic tradition in the most uncompromising of way.

Text © Philip Brophy 2010. Images © Kino International