Understanding Dogtooth requires an understanding of the craziest, cruelest, most debauched experiments ever undertaken in human history. It tells the story of a deranged married couple who keep their three adult children confined within their isolated estate, teaching them the incorrect definitions of certain words, scaring them away from the outside world and forcing them to compete against one another for their love and attention. Before we can even scratch the surface of Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre “how-not-to-raise-your-children” parable, we need to look at the crimes against humanity embarked upon by some of the brightest, most brutal minds of our time. Is this a diversion from actually critiquing the film? Yes. But no traditional review could possibly befit such a brilliantly insane black comedy as Dogtooth.
Firstly, I’d like to direct your attention to Alex Boese’s book Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments, a wonderfully comic collection of failed studies and examples in hubris-gone-wrong. It is from this book that I will recount the experiments I personally believe inspired Lanthimos’ in the writing of his social satire, and the knowledge of which will better inform any viewing of Dogtooth (yes, I’m still stalling). I also used Wikipedia, because, well, that site knows everything.
The Monster Study: In 1939, speech pathologist Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa conducted one of the most audacious and controversial psychological studies in history. He recruited 22 orphan children (orphans!) and divided them into two groups. The first group was praised for their enunciation; the second was chided and belittled for any and every speech imperfection. As you would expect, the second group retained speech problems for the remainder of their lives, among a number of other psychological scars. UOI apologised in 2001, and six years later, a number of the orphans were awarded $925,000 each for their troubles. I promise you, even without the $925,000 pay out, the orphans would have more likely enjoyed a less traumatic life than that which lies ahead for the protagonists of Dogtooth.
The Stanford Prison Experiment: In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University arranged for twenty-four of his students to act as prisoners in a mock prison beneath the college grounds. A number of other students acted as “officers”, and ran the prison with an iron fist. As Boese describes them, they were “good, honest citizens with no criminal records, and who, based on their personality tests, fell into the normal range on every trait”. A prison riot broke out on the second day. After six days, and numerous, morality-free forays into the depths of human depravity, the project was shut down for good. Although the hypothesis had been unclear, and the conditions victim to a number of uncontrollable variables, the results of the experiment were unquestionable: people will torture one another, so long as it’s vaguely condoned by ‘the people in charge’. And as we relate it to Dogtooth: cage humans and they will go crazy.
The Milgram Experiment: The Stanford experiment was a descendant of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous series of tests, in which genial civilians were instructed to torture people – to death – and complied out of some misguided sense of obligation. Intended to complement the simultaneous trial of Nazi war criminals, the 1961 experiment pondered the possibility that any human is capable of unthinkable crimes. Subjects were offered four dollars to sit in a room and act as “teacher” to an unseen – but very much heard – subject in another room, known as the “learner”. The teacher was asked by very professional looking “scientists” in lab coats to read a list of word pairs to the learner, and the learner was required to answer. When the learner would answer incorrectly – the learner was a hired actor; they always would – the teacher would be instructed to inflict upon them an electrical shock. The more questions they got wrong, the more intense the shock. Eventually, the teacher would be submitting the other subject – who had previously “admitted” to having a weak heart – to intense electrocution, hearing their (fake) screams of agony through the walls. Eventually they would stop screaming, but the teachers were instructed by the “scientists” to keep shocking them if they remained silent. Again, they complied. Two-thirds of the teachers never disobeyed their orders, shocking their supposedly-dead counterparts with 450 volts … of knowledge! (But mainly electricity.)
The Pit of Despair: This one – this one – is messed up. Psychologist Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin-Madison spent much of his career studying the bond between mother-and-child, specifically in monkeys. In 1971, Harlow was plunged into a depression following the death of his wife. After a refreshing bout of electro-shock treatment, he returned to work. But colleagues noted he was not the same man as before. So was born ‘The Pit of Despair’, an isolation-chamber in which baby monkeys were imprisoned for up to ten weeks. Upon release, they were found to have become psychotic, with several later starving themselves to death. Harlow then tried to test the parenting skills of the surviving ‘isolates’. Because they had no sexual drive (another ‘benefit’ of The Pit), the females were tied to what Harlow called – and I’m not making this up – a “rape rack”. As you would imagine, their parenting skills left a lot to be desired. Most ignored their offspring; one disturbed individual chewed its child to death; another crushed the skull of her baby. Whether it was his intention or not, Harlow had successfully proven that monkeys similarly experience depression and psychosis. Say what you will about those crazy monkey parents though: they could teach a thing or two to the mother and father from Dogtooth.
O.K., I’ve spent the majority of this review discussing the bizarre experiments that act as companion pieces to Dogtooth. But with good reason. Dogtooth is a film for those with strong stomachs; for those who enjoy a pitch-black comedy; for those fascinated by the debased lows humans sink to; for those intrigued by people who abuse their dubious power, and of those who feel compelled to obey orders from ‘the man in charge’. If the aforementioned studies repelled you, congratulations, you are a normal human being. May I direct your attention to the surprisingly good romantic comedy No Strings Attached? If, however, they intrigued you, fascinated you, or excited you (not in that way), then perhaps Dogtooth is the movie you’ve been looking for. Without spoiling the precise events that occur within the film, imagine a sort of passive combination of the above true tales, enforced by two parents as if they were instructing their children to eat their vegetables. The film is carried by the committed performances from the childlike captives (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni and Christos Passalis) and their immoral parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michelle Valley). It’s beautifully shot by Thimios Bakatakis, expertly paced, and filled with devilish surprises from screenwriters Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou. Best of all is the enigmatic finale, which combines a re-enactment of the climactic sequence from Flashdance with a moment of extreme violence and a hilariously ambiguous final shot.
Dogtooth is many things, and I’m afraid it’s one of those rare films that can’t be adequately described and analysed in a single review. It deserves long conversations between people who have watched it (perhaps multiple times). The best I can hope for with this article is that by now you will know whether it is for you or not. If you’re still sitting on the fence, let me restate my feelings in a nutshell: Dogtooth is one of the funniest films of the past 12 months, an unforgettable social-satire, a devious little test of endurance for brave movie-lovers and the best argument against home-schooling since The Jonas Brothers.
Dogtooth is available on DVD from February 16th, 2011.