360º Architecture

10 September, 2011

The Danger that Lurks on this Side of the Gates

In Yorgos Lanthimos's 2009 film Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας, winner of the 2009 Cannes Festival Un Certain Regard award, and 2010 nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award), the authoritarian patriarch rules his family by sustaining a prospect of terror.

By Styliane Philippou

Greek version

In January 2010, I wrote in this column of the growing threat to Europe's civilization - the result of multiple cultural influences and confluences - posed by a worryingly increasing number of misguided attempts to prove and protect Europe's fictional cultural purity, including its imagined architectural purity. Such claims of cultural purity, I wrote then, sound frighteningly close to claims of racial purity and their consequences, which we ought not forget. Following last month's atrocities committed by Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo and on the island of Utøya, in the name of safeguarding 'European traditions, culture, identity' and 'racial/ethnic purity' - 'the very center of cultural identity,' according to the mass killer - experts and intelligence agencies warned that Norway's racist murderer should not be considered a lone lunatic. His monstrous deeds only made the threat from racism terrifyingly palpable. A former member of Norway's right-wing, anti-immigration Progress Party - the country's second largest with 23% of the vote in the last elections - Breivik had joined the Nordisk forum - a violence-inciting forum associated with the Nazi Swedish Resistance Movement - and was inspired by and claimed links to the anti-Islamic English Defence League.(1) Hardline, anti-Muslim websites, right-wing terror groups and nationalist propaganda across Europe helped Breivik formulate and galvanize his extremist ideas into a deadly 'demand for blood vengeance'. As Gavan Titley and Alana Lentin recently stressed in The Guardian, 'writers who have consistently warned of the need to defend an ailing civilisation have questions to answer when a massacre is explicitly justified in their terms'.(2)

Foolishly, demagogically, pretty much ignorantly and utterly irresponsibly, some of Europe's leaders - from Angela Merkel to David Cameron - have recently questioned multiculturalism, apparently oblivious to the fact that their declarations inadvertently encourage right-wing extremism and heinous acts of terror. More revoltingly, extreme-right politicians in Italy, France, Austria, the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands voiced sympathy for the ideology that fuelled Breivik's murderous rampage. Francesco Speroni, one of Silvio Berlusconi's former ministers and leading member of Italy's Northern League, shamelessly declared that 'Breivik's ideas are in defence of western civilization'. 'Western Christian civilization needs to be defended,' he added in support of his fellow Northern League member Mario Borghezio, a partner in Berlusconi's government and member of the European parliament's committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs, who expressed approval of Breivik's ideas and implied that his mass killings were part of a conspiracy against conservative thinkers.(3) The Wall Street Journal also expressed support for Breivik's racist ideology. Oslo-based Bruce Bawer, whose writings Breivik admired and cited, lamented the damage inflicted on the anti-Islamic 'cause', assessed Oslo's murderer as 'both highly intelligent and very well read in European history and the history of modern ideas,' and outrageously remarked that the Utøya butcher's was 'a legitimate concern about genuine problems, 'which led to an 'unspeakably evil "solution"'.(4)

Shortly before what he called his 'martyrdom operation', Breivik posted on his Facebook page his rambling manifesto, a 1,518-page document (2083: A European Declaration of Independence) that refers to his ideology as 'cultural conservatism', and lists his enemies-cum-targets: cultural Marxists, multiculturalists, sociologists, academics, politically correct politicians, homosexuals, feminists, women etc., who, in his view, 'deny the intrinsic worth of native Christian European heterosexual males' and promote the 'Islamic colonization' and 'feminisation' of Europe. Describing himself as a 'nationalist', he regarded the Norwegian government and young people associated with the ruling Labour Party as responsible for the 'Islamisation of Europe' and 'multiculturalism...[its] root cause'. And he proceeded to implement his solution: 'executing category A and B cultural Marxists/multiculturalist traitors', in a massacre intended to cleanse his 'extended ethnic family' of those whose policies, in Breivik's view, endanger the survival of the 'Nordic tribes'. Perhaps inspired by former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's 'battle of culture' against multiculturalism and Islam, Breivik poses as a warrior in defence of 'European cultures, identities and the traditional structures (nuclear family, traditional morality and patriarchal structures)'.

In Yorgos Lanthimos's 2009 film Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας, winner of the 2009 Cannes Festival Un Certain Regard award, and 2010 nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award), the authoritarian patriarch rules his family by sustaining a prospect of terror. So-called traditional family values are represented in the film by a full-time, homebound mother (Michelle Valley) of three healthy, handsome and obedient grown-up children, and a strict father (Christos Stergioglou) who foots the bill and goes to extremes to protect his family and raise good children. And family secrets stay in the family. Traditional conceptions of sexuality and attitudes about sexual behaviour are also prominent: only male, heterosexual sexuality is acceptable, and male dominates female. Eventually, care and protection are revealed as a means of perpetrating violence; literal conformity to moralizing social norms proves highly explosive. Cruelty becomes inbred and violence internalized. Rather than an outside enemy or an infiltrator teaching new gods - what the father fears and battles - it is his own interpretation of good morals and his perverse methods of absolute control that will bring about the destruction of the family, through incest and self-mutilation. Dogtooth pushes society's clichés to their extreme, frightening conclusion, unmasking their darker side. Several critics judged Lanthimos's film funny. Although certain situations do expose the absurdly ridiculous aspect of what is taken for normality - in the manner of Elfriede Jelineck or Michael Haneke - I found nothing amusing about Dogtooth; nothing made me laugh. Instead, I thought it unsettling and distressing rather than enchanting, but also engagingly provocative and troubling.





Dogtooth, 2011, (Κυνόδοντας), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, produced by Iraklis Mavroidis, Athina Rachel Tsangari and Yorgos Tsourianis, winner of the 2009 Cannes Festival Un Certain Regard award, 2010 nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.


The unnamed, white, well-off family of Dogtooth live in a rather banal but comfortable suburban house with a large garden and swimming pool. The unpaved access road and lack of neighbouring structures suggest a remote location. Only a bare hillside is partially visible beyond the high, double fence of the house, contrasting with the private garden, lush and well maintained and always sunny. Confined since birth and protected even from words that describe the outside world, the children - two daughters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) and a son (Christos Passalis) - have no knowledge of it. They are taught words like 'sea', 'motorway', 'excursion' or 'telephone', but these belong to a private language understood only within the family: they mean, respectively, 'leather armchair', 'strong wind', 'highly durable flooring material' and 'salt'. Recalling M. Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004), the children of Dogtooth are made to believe that savage enemies lurk on the other side of the garden fence, ready to butcher and devour those who venture beyond the gated family.

In Lanthimos's dystopia, social and spatial segregation have reached their extreme conclusion: absolute withdrawal and total exclusion from society. All notions of society, community, public space, citizenship, state etc. have disappeared. The nuclear family lives its strictly private life in secure isolation within its exclusive, fortified enclave. The discourse of fear that legitimizes gated communities eventually expands to include everyone except for the members of the nuclear family. When Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) - the security guard whom the father brings blindfolded to the house and pays to have sex with his son - introduces elements of the outside world that, in the father's view, corrupt his children, he announces to the acquiescent mother: 'we cannot trust anybody'. And he calmly hands on Christina's task to the daughter he allows the son to choose.

When one day a cat intrudes into the garden and the frightened son massacres it with a pair of hedge shears, the father calmly explains that the cat is 'the most dangerous animal'. The following day he tears up his trousers, smears his white shirt with red paint and announces to the shocked family that one of those cats that 'feed on children's flesh' has devoured their missing brother, who apparently had disobeyed and left the house 'unprepared'. The mother, son and two daughters are then trained 'in case of invasion': lined up on all fours, they practise barking to scare the enemy away. They also display pet-dog behaviour when they lick their abusive master seeking attention. Around the dinner table, the children obediently recite pre-learnt answers to the questions posed by the patriarch-cum-pedagogue: 'a child is ready to leave home when their right dogtooth falls out - or the left one, it doesn't matter'; 'we can only leave the house safely by car'; 'we are ready to learn how to drive when our right dogtooth grows back - or the left one, it doesn't matter'. Theirs is a life imprisonment. 'While you are inside [your high security home] you are protected', the autocratic patriarch reassures his pet-children, proclaiming a state of emergency prolonged indefinitely.


Yorgos Lanthimos, 2011, Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας)


Only the family ruler ever leaves the house, driving his Mercedes to the factory where he works, and which presumably he owns. Only what the father provides, what comes directly from the family or sustains family myths is permitted to enter the home: the fish he smuggles and then catches in the swimming pool; the airplanes that he makes the children believe that they fall into the garden in the form of toys, and he then awards to the highest achiever in the sports he invents; the food and medicine he brings to the house, first removing all producer labels; the films of the family he makes and then projects for evening family entertainment; the family celebration of the parents' wedding anniversary; the dog he chillingly announces that the mother will soon bear, presumably to boost security; or grandfather's LP (Frank Sinatra singing 'Fly Me to the Moon', its lyrics simultaneously translated by the father into 'Dad loves us / Mum loves us / Do we love them? / Yes we love them...My house you are beautiful and I love you and will never leave you').

Lanthimos's characters are literally anonymous and frequently shot faceless. The only form of identity they are permitted is family related: dud, mum, brother, sister, darling. The siblings are forever cast in the child's role without responsibilities, but deprived of innocence. They are encouraged to constantly compete against each other for rewards from the parents. All the tasks they are assigned are physical and rudimentary. They maintain a daily routine of physical exercise, bodily hygiene and medical games, disturbing echoes of 1930s preoccupations. Incredibly bored, they seek excitement in pain. They endure beatings for punishment and become increasingly aggressive to one another. Dressed in sportswear or nondescript Sundaywear, they are incapable of individual expression or display of emotion. Even the boy's piano or guitar playing and the girls' dancing are totally mechanical and pre-learnt, until the elder daughter ventures a Jennifer Beals impression, a transgression that predictably infuriates the watchful father. In contrast, Christina and the father's factory colleagues - the others to the family - all have names. When the elder daughter transgresses into forbidden territory, by secretly watching the videotapes she gets from Christina , she demands to be called a name of her own. The characters' anonymity and pet-like behaviour represent their total subjugation to the power of the father and the dehumanizing effects of social deprivation.


Yorgos Lanthimos, 2011, Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας)


The film is set in the late 1970s, soon after the end of Greece's military dictatorship. The language is Greek and the landscape around the house Mediterranean. Yet, the family of Dogtooth also lives in a globalized mass culture, and the actors seem to have been carefully selected so as not to appear stereotypically Greek or anything else. On the one hand, it is tempting to read Dogtooth's walled family state as a reflection of Greece's unhealthy, self-centred, unaccountable and endemically corrupt state, where familism rules in almost every field and public institutions are distrusted, and where operating beyond the law and beyond the reach of the state is accepted as 'the way things are done' and therefore as normal. The Dogtooth family's incarceration in an antiseptic palace of Sans-Souci, where summer is eternal and danger forever kept at bay, also gives uncanny expression to Greece's current anxieties about and demonization of recent immigrants, feelings of loss and fear of the other, the upper classes' withdrawal from central areas of the city, and a rising tide of reactionary nationalism and racism.

But these are also globalized phenomena and the Dogtooth patriarch's ideal of breeding the perfect family and insulating it from the evil world beyond its gates is not totally unlike the ideal of every other Mr Patriarch. When he beats Christina for her 'wrongdoing to [his] family', the curse he pronounces upon her is that her 'children get all the wrong stimuli and grow to be bad'. His evil solution has commonplace motives that transcend ethnic specificity. His construction of an independent, private order and the restriction of his family's freedom are justified as measures of defence in the face of an external threat, echoing xenophobic discourse and normalized fear of the other, increasingly prevalentwell beyond the borders of Greece. Like the self-appointed avenger of Nordic blood, the Dogtooth father is not a lone lunatic. His obsession with the purity of his family is not as unusual as its disturbing consequences may make it appear. And his mistrust of the state and public institutions stem directly from on-going efforts to discredit them and devalue society, beginning from the Thatcher-Reagan years. As in Margaret Thacher's notorious remark, in Dogtooth 'There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families'.

A rather pathetic and unappealing, but also frighteningly familiar figure, Lanthimos's breadwinner father espouses the family ideal invoked in Breivik's manifesto. He is strongly committed to his family and motivated to run a successful business enterprise in order to support a good family life. He energetically organizes daily family routine and family-centred rituals, recognizing the family as the only institution capable of offering security against a degenerating society on the other side of domestic doors. The discourse on traditional, white, suburban family values and gender and sex roles that authorizes the apparently ordinary pater familias of Dogtooth to decide on how to house, feed, medicate and educate his children is also used to justify his exercise of exclusive, absolute and unaccountable dominion over the bodies and minds of his subjects. Lanthimos exposes the danger that lurks within the ideology that affirms the sanctity and social centrality of the family and denies family pathologies - domestic tyranny, sadistic violence and sexual abuse.  Nauseating nationalist propaganda and anti-multiculturalist rhetoric rely on essentialist notions of culture and identity, fostered by this familist ideology that glorifies bonds of blood.



Yorgos Lanthimos, 2011, Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας)


Directed in a matter-of-fact way, coldly observed as if there were nothing unusual going on - just the way things are done - Lanthimos's film provokes questions about the ordinary and the commonplace - precisely what goes mostly unquestioned. The filming of the systematic violence within the patriarchalist family of Dogtooth is distinctly uneventful, steering well clear of the spectacular. Even acts of violence are presented as ordinary, child play or acceptable method of education, utterly banal. Brilliant and disturbing, Dogtooth explores the dark side of conservative, unquestioned family values, as it unfolds in broad daylight (in contrast to Arturo Ripstein's 1972 El Castillo de la pureza), in a respectably nondescript home, inhabited by an unremarkable, terrifyingly normal, anonymous family. The framing that often crops out limbs or heads suggests a voyeur-spectator or neighbour peeping curiously through a chink in the fence, watching.

Dogtooth invites the spectators to project on the anonymous characters their own darker side and capacity for creating self-justifying fictions. But it also holds out some hope or, in Abbas Kiarostami's terms, it allows 'each individual member of the create his truth according to his own wishes and criteria'.(5) In a final act of transgression, the elder daughter appropriates the myth used by the father to deny her freedom and perpetuate her subjugation, and turns it into a means of escape. She knocks off her dogtooth with a dumbbell and hides in the boot of the car, until the next morning when the father drives to the factory. Bringing to mind Kiarostami's 'unfinished cinema that attains completion through the creative spirit of the audience...and corresponds to their own world', Dogtooth ends with the camera lingering over the closed car boot. Sharing Kiarostami's 'respect of the audience as an intelligent and constructive element' may also be the only way to remain optimistic in the face of escalating anti-multiculturalist rhetoric and racist propaganda.


1    Townsend, Mark and Ian Traynor, 2011, 'Norway Attacks: How Far Right Views Created Anders Behring Breivik', The Guardian, 30 July, . Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Breivik's manifesto: 2083: A European Declaration of Independence.
2    Titley, Gavan and Alana Lentin, 2011, 'Anders Behring Breivik Had No Legitimate Grievance', The Guardian, 26 July, . Titley and Lentin add: 'And mainstream politicians, content to lazily peddle an exaggerated story of multicultural excess and Muslim difference are not exempt from this criticism.'
3    Hooper, John, 2011, 'Ex-Berlusconi Minister Defends Anders Behring Breivik', The Guardian, 27 July,  See also : 'Italy MEP backs ideas of Norway killer Breivik', BBC News, 27 July 2011,
4    Bawer, Bruce, 2011, 'Inside the Mind of the Oslo Murderer', The Wall Street Journal, 25 July.
5    Kiarostami, Abbas, 1995, 'An Unfinished Cinema', text written for and delivered at the celebration of the Centenary of Cinema, Théâtre de l'Odéon, Paris.


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