Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth is an inventive and riveting film that blurs the line between the real and the utterly grotesque. The story (the less you know, the better) takes place almost entirely within the confines of a spacious family house, inhabited by a married couple and their three grown-up children, who have never left the house and are confined to the bizarre world created by their parents’ cruel games and peculiar educational methods. Opting for fixed, meticulously framed shots and a dazzling, yet unhurried visual style, Lanthimos gradually reveals the details of this twisted, self-enclosed world while crafting an increasingly unsettling atmosphere. Full of weird surprises, wonderful dark humour and irreverent spirit, Dogtooth is a bold and brilliantly perverse gem. Pamela Jahn talks to Yorgos Lanthimos about parenting, Greek views on sexuality and the necessity of a good sense of humour.
Pamela Jahn: In Dogtooth you’re telling a story about a dysfunctional family that abandons the norms, rules and logic that have been taken for granted in society. What attracted you to this kind of subject matter?
Yorgos Lanthimos: It didn’t really start as a story about family dysfunction as such. In the beginning, I was wondering about family life and parenting in general and if the way we think about it would ever really change. But I had a conversation with some friends one day, and I was making fun about the fact that two of them were getting married and having children, because today many people get divorced and kids are being raised by single parents, so I said there was no point in getting married. But although I was obviously just joking, all of a sudden they got extremely defensive about what I had said. This made me realise how someone I knew and who I would never have expected to react that way freaks out when you mess about with his family. And that’s how I got the initial idea about this man who would go to extremes to protect his family, and who would try to keep his family together forever by keeping his children away from any influence from the outside world, being firmly convinced that this is the best way to raise them.
But it’s obviously a bit more than just keeping them away from the outside world, because the parents also play pretty cruel games with their children and teach them nonsense.
The thing is that because the father really does have the best intentions for his children, or at least that is what he believes, he tries to provide them with the best environment to grow up in, like this big house with a big garden and a swimming pool and all that. But at the same time, he has to create all these myths and fears so that the children don’t dare going out of the house. But since he has been able to do that from the moment they were born it also shows just how much you can influence people’s minds and create a view of the world for them that is exactly the way you want it.
It’s also interesting that you decided not to give any background information about why the parents decided to raise their children this way in the first place.
Yes, that was very important to me from the beginning, because I think it would have been a completely different film otherwise – you would be too engaged in judging if it was right for them to behave that way depending on the reasons they had for doing so. What interested me most was the result of their actions and to see how far you can go when messing with people’s minds and making them believe the things that you want them to believe. It’s a very dangerous thing to do and I hope my film provokes reactions from people because in the film it is obviously too late. Sooner or later this had to explode.
It all seems to work out until Christina comes into play, a woman who is brought into the house by the father on occasion to have sex with his son. She is basically the trigger that starts the fatal chain of increasingly violent events.
That’s right, she is the trigger. But what fascinates me most about her character is that she enters this obscure world and for her there is a temptation to take advantage of the situation and of the children. For example, she demands things from the older sister so they start dealing in this way, ‘I give you that, so why don’t you give me this’. You can feel the power Christina has, which she plays out on the children. It’s the temptation to take advantage of the weaker ones, and that’s what I like about her character. I think I would be tempted to act in the same way if I came into contact with someone so naÃ¯ve, and to fool them and get whatever I want from them. Why not do it?
Although the son is daddy’s darling and gets special treatment, the two girls seem much more mature and stronger. How did you develop the different characters of the siblings?
I do believe that girls or women in general are stronger characters than boys. They are the smartest ones (laughs). So it was just natural for me that the older boy would be the father’s favourite, but at the same time he tries the hardest and seems somewhat more immature. But it also has to do with the fact that boys are seen as much more deserving of having sex and entitled to more things than the girls. When it comes to the girls, the parents never think that they need to be educated about sex and they deal with them in a much more conservative way. So it creates this bizarre situation, where they just discard any kind of thought about this with regard to the girls. For the boy, however, they are very proud of him having sex. At least this is the mentality we have in Greece. I have to admit, it’s quite dated, but I guess it still exists in other countries too.
How much research did you do before or while writing the script?
We didn’t do any research at all, because I thought it was such a surreal story we were working on. It was only afterwards, when we were already rehearsing, that this Austrian story came out about the father who kept his daughter in the basement, where she grew up like an animal, and he had children with her. But still, this felt very different from what we were trying to do since it had a very different tone to it, way too dark and dreadful.
Your film has a ferocious wit and a great sense of humour, which at times makes it feel more like an inverted comedy, in which absurdity gets out of control when some sort of normality finds its way in. Why was humour so important to you in this story?
That’s true (laughs)… It’s interesting what you’re saying. I actually never thought about it in this way, but it was the only way for me to approach the subject, because to really go deep into things the film had to be violent and, at the same time, have a great sense of humour, with the contradiction of being in an open space with light and beautiful garden and beautiful children. I think it brings out the most intense and powerful emotions when you experience contradictions like this. By employing a certain sense of humour you essentially get more serious about things and show conflict more effectively than if you were overly dramatic or only violent because that’s a one-way approach that just forces audiences to watch something appalling. With humour you can really make people think in many different directions, and it feels like a more existential experience to me. I always try to infuse humour into my work. I also work in theatre a lot, and you often end up working on a play without much humour. But it is very important for me to always find a way to introduce the ridiculous side of things into whatever I do, no matter how dramatic or tragic the given situation is.
It seems quite clear that you are not advocating violence because we see that the kids’ actions lead to some very nasty events. On the other hand, violence and dancing seem to be the only ways for the siblings to express their frustration at their lack of freedom.
I am very close to physicality in general, and I think I can only really work things out that way. I only work physically with the actors when rehearsing. I don’t sit down with them to analyse their parts in terms of what they should be thinking of and how they should approach their character. I just don’t like analysing things too much and I guess that’s why I deal with things physically. It just feels more real to me, and especially in film, where you have actors pretending to be a character in a situation. I don’t like setting up a frame of mind in their head. I just like them to act, literally speaking.
Did you have a clear idea from the beginning of how you were going to approach the visual style of the film?
I never try to visualise a film while writing the script or when I am casting. This happens only when I start rehearsing, I start getting an idea of what the film could look like. And in this particular film I thought it should be shot in a way that was quite realistic on the one hand – for example, there is not much lighting and the location is real – but with really strict framing and a cool, surreal look to go with the narrative. I guess that this is also related to my general philosophy about filmmaking. To me, it looks fake if you try to be too involved in the way you film things and if you ask your actors to get really emotionally involved. As much as I don’t like forcing feelings onto my actors, I also don’t like forcing them onto the audience. I prefer to keep the film open to allow people to get engaged in their own way. So I try to not guide people to conclusions too much, but rather expose things and have the audience react to what is happening on screen. For me, it is also a way of avoiding being too didactic in my films.
Dogtooth feels like a slap in the face of suburban life. In that sense, is it a personal story too?
No, it’s exactly the opposite. I grew up with only my mother, she got divorced when I was very young, and she died when I was 17 years old. From then on, I was by myself, so I had to go out into the world quite early and earn a living and study and do all these things. So, in a way I am observing the characters and the story in the film from a very different point of view. But even so, I really don’t know what I would do if I was a parent. If you asked me today how I would raise my children I would say that I’d try to have them experience freedom and be much more in contact with the world, and I think I would live somewhere in the centre of the city where they can come into contact with as many different elements of life as possible. But I am saying this now and in a year or so we might be speaking again and I might live in a nice suburban house with a garden and a swimming pool… who knows? I really don’t know what life has in store for me, but it’s amazing how your mind can fool you sometimes. (laughs)