by Joyelle McSweeney on Apr.26, 2011
[Hi, I’d like to invite everyone who’s seen a good (or at least interesting) movie lately to join the film club and post a mini-essay. I’m going to kick things off with Dogtooth]
Art provides us with many fantasy versions of the dreamlife and dreamlanguage of children raised in total isolation, either by incarceration or neglect. These range from the luxurious incestual langour of Ada or Ardor to the incestuous fatal decadent beauty of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles to the incestuous fatal cinephilic whimsy of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers to the moral virtuosity of Kasper Hauser. Even Lolita enjoys her captivity, her consumption of movie magazines. Except for the example of Kasper Hauser, innocence and depraved eroticism are linked and, even in Kasper Hauser, whimsy and supra-creativity are everywhere for these isolated children. Locked up beyond the reach of society’s instruction or its laws, they construct their own worlds with virtuosic inventiveness. Such movies are almost vacation brochures for the libidinal pleasures of total evacuation into Art itself—if you lived in Art, you would be home by now.
Dogtooth is a stunning movie because it completely departs from these models. The incarcerated siblings are not virtuosic at anything. They are stunted, without frame of reference, clumsy, speech deprived, stripped even of eroticism. There is no langour here, and even incest is part of their captors’ command rather than the childlike compensation of isolation. The only instinct their captors have preserved in them is one of violence and jealousy over space and material belongings. Within a system supposedly constructed to protect these children from the violent assaults of this world, violence is tolerated with an arbitrariness which mirrors the arbitrariness of the entire system. In fact, it’s one of the paradoxes of the film that an incarcerating system so total, so literally confining as to amount to the entire World for the siblings, is also so arbitrary, so shoddy, so counterfeit in its every detail.
To watch this film is to be stunned by its many proliferating and vertiginous applications to the world we live in. It could be read as a commentary on totalitarianism, perhaps the historical example of the dictatorship in Greece. I also found myself getting incredibly angry at the father-figure in the film—my instinctive reading was to see this as an allegory about the patriarchy itself, its absolute foreclosure or pre-empting of all lines of escape, a theme also treated in Notley’s Descent of Alette— the inability of getting away from the Tyrant’s grip except by imitating his violence. Furthermore I wondered if the film could be applied to the enforced conformism of literary culture, in which we are taught in such a way that we can’t even think beyond the constructs of genre or of the text as a bounded, incarcerated object which can be evaluated on its supposedly fixed and self-contained form.
Finally, the film seems to model the captivity enforced by capitalism, which recouperates our every attempt to make a space away from it. In this respect it’s interesting that Dogtooth recapitulates other isolated-children movies and novels in that Art plays a pivotal role in awakening one child to her potential liberation; by mimicking both the dialogue and violence of movies instead of the script her captors have given her, she fashions an intellectual exit from their system. However, it is because of this unlawful inventiveness, reflected in her speech and gestures—an ‘unlawfulness’ which is in fact the simulacrum of another law– that her dereliction is detected by her captors. At the same time, when she at last configures an escape plan, it combines the two models of violence—one gained from her (very limited) exposure to movies and one inculcated in her by her captors themselves. By saturating the content/form of the Law with the content/form of Art, she enacts a non-equivalence, a supersaturation which makes an aperture in the system through which she (might) be able to escape. But first she has to turn her doubled-up violence not on her fellow captives or on her captors (that thought remains unthinkable) but on the only victim to hand– herself.