November • 8 • 2020

Sara Thomas
A New Meaning: Dogtooth and the Manipulation of Power in the Hyperreal
Dogtooth1

Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth, Boo Productions/Centre Cinematographique Grecque/Horsefly Productions, 2009.

Dogtooth (2009), written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, follows the story of a family living in the Greek countryside. Throughout the film, the audience learns that the father and mother have raised their two daughters and one son (all family members remain nameless) to believe that the world beyond their fenced-in mansion is an apocalyptic one. The parents exercise total control over the children’s knowledge of the world; they are raised to believe that fish spontaneously appear in swimming pools, that airplanes fall out of the sky and appear as toys in their bushes, and, perhaps most influentially, the children are constantly being taught mis-definitions of common words.

By teaching the children that telephone means salt, pussy means “a big light,” and that the sea is “the leather armchair with wooden armrests like the one in the living room,” the parents create their own language. This serves to exclude outsiders on the rare occasion that the parents choose to bring anyone into the home and prevents the children from communicating with other people if they were ever to escape. (1) As the audience, we witness the changed words as a part of normal conversation, through an audio recording that the children have to memorize, and when the children encounter a new word. It is through this careful and precise re-definition of language and manipulation of knowledge that the parents both control their children and maintain their positions within the household. Through re-defining words, the parents have essentially re-defined the boundaries of the world.

Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth, Boo Productions/Centre Cinematographique Grecque/Horsefly Productions, 2009.

On one level, the changing of words strikes at the absurdity of language and the random combinations of sounds that cultures associate with specific objects, actions, and emotions. Why shouldn’t the sound tele-fone mean salt? On a second level, we can see the changing of words and the creation of a “new” language as a polarization between the real and the hyperreal. In Jean Baudrillard’s seminal essay “Simulacra and Simulations” (1981), Baudrillard describes the hyperreal as, “a real without origin or reality.” (2) The rules and logic of the new language used by the children echo the rules and logic of the world the parents have created. While the parents’ world may appear to imitate our own, it is a spontaneous generation, divorced from any need for the evolutions that scaffold our own etymology and assumptions.

In the scene where children ask for the definition of the word “pussy” at the dinner table, the mother, suspicious of where they may have learned it, defines it as a “big light.” It is an impulse definition that seeks to remove any real-world sexual connotations of the word. While the moment may read as arbitrary and protective to the audience, the seriousness with which the definition is accepted by the children elevates the situation to the hyperreal. The children exist in a world without history or context — though they learned the word “pussy” in a pseudo-sexual situation, they are willing to alter their understanding of their own experience to adopt their parents’ disconnected definitions.

Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth, Boo Productions/Centre Cinematographique Grecque/Horsefly Productions, 2009.

Baudrillard argues that the hyperreal “no longer has to be rational,” something that Lanthimos takes advantage of in Dogtooth by the use of the absurd. (3) For example, the parents are in the process of adopting a dog. They explain the introduction of a new creature to the house by saying the mother will give birth to the dog. The concept of birth is something the children are already familiar with, having read medical manuals provided by their parents. Thus, another manipulation of information can be assumed by the audience. The mother has allowed the children a certain amount of true information (that a baby is conceived, gestates, and is then birthed) but has left out a key fact: how one’s species limits what one is able to give birth to. The idea of a woman birthing a dog is inherently absurd to the audience, but for the children, this information merely confirms and reinforces the idea that their mother’s role in the household is to bring new family members into it. Creatures, objects, and people who do not become members of the household are understood to occur without origin; they appear in the swimming pool, from their father’s car trunk, or fall from the sky, divorced from a source.

Philip Brophy, a video artist and film critic, argues that the oral, vocal, and acoustic elements of the film relate back to the Ancient Greek tradition of poetic myth-making. (4) The Ancient Greeks used myth-making to understand their world, but the myths themselves embraced the irrational and the temperamental. Brophy also compares the role of the father to the gods in mythology. (5) The father’s megalomania is epic in proportion and he works constantly to manage his power. As the family’s sole connection with the outside world, the father maintains full control over everything that is brought into the house from basic supplies to Christina, a woman brought in to satisfy the son’s sexual needs.

thomas4.jpg

Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth, Boo Productions/Centre Cinematographique Grecque/Horsefly Productions, 2009.

The cultural theorist, writer, and critic Mark Fisher likened the father’s power to a Dadaist performance. (6) Fisher claims that “Dadaism delighted in exaggerating the pompous absurdity of the ceremonies that authority needs in order to legitimate itself,” which he connects to the strict adherence to mundane ritualizations that the family adamantly follows. (7) This is demonstrated through the encouraged competition between the children, a tactic used to help mitigate their natural curiosity and rebellion. They compete during specific challenges and throughout their daily tasks for stickers and the ability to choose which entertainment the family will enjoy after dinner. In one scene, the son is given the honor and chooses a film. We see the family later watching a home video of themselves, as the youngest daughter follows along, speaking the words in sync with the video.

Baudrillard calls this referentiality and re-injection of realness a “weapon of power.” (8) He argues that in order to convince those living in the hyperreal not to question their surroundings, one must occasionally re-inject reality to gain trust and must refer constantly to what is already known to create a closed-loop of information. We saw this earlier with the definition of the word sea. According to the family, the sea is “the leather armchair with wooden armrests like the one in the living room.” This reference to a chair in their living room connects an unfamiliar word with a familiar object, thus further expanding their vocabulary, but not their world view. (9)

The parents are ultimately able to create a hyperreal world through the use of referentiality, injection, indoctrination, and manipulation. Yet the parents lack complete control over all forms of reality, and eventually, echoes and traces of the outside world reach the children. We see the parents react and adapt to the children witnessing airplanes in the sky, a stray cat in the yard, and two contraband films that the eldest daughter manages to acquire. They are able to explain the first two, but the third introduces the eldest daughter to a new world; a world she can now compare to her own. The introduction of these films demonstrates the fragility of the hyperreal world the parents so carefully constructed. And, upon giving herself a name in the fashion of the films, the eldest daughter — now Bruce — challenges the world around her and ultimately decides to escape. The question then remains, how will the parents reconstruct the hyperreal for the remaining children, and will it be effective?

• • •

Sara Thomas is an art historian exploring video art, installation, and film.

Endnotes

1. Dogtooth (Kynodontas), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (Athens: Feelgood Entertainment, 2009), 0:00:20 to 0:01:52, Criterion Chanel.

2. Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation,” in Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1988), 166.

3. Ibid., 166.

4. Philip Brophy, “The Prisonhouse of Language: Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth Makes Greek Mythology Modern,” Film Comment, March/April 2010, 16.

5. Ibid., 16.

6. Mark Fisher, “Dogtooth: The Family Syndrome,” Film Quarterly 64, no 4 (Summer 2011): 23.

7. Ibid., 23.

8. Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation,” 182.

9. Dogtooth, Lanthimos, 0:00:20 to 0:01:52.