Lanthimos and Language [2/4]




‘The Limits of My World’


Dogtooth is laden with bright, wide-angle shots of the family estate – a large villa, complete with sprawling gardens and private swimming pool – an image ‘as cosy and inviting as in the most mainstream visual representations of the “ideal home”’.[1] In reality, as Anjana Janardhan astutely suggests, the family’s patriarch uses the space to ‘create an alternative reality governed by its own internal logic’.[2] By emphasising how the Father strictly regulates his family’s borders through control of language and media, Lanthimos depicts, in Ipek A. Celik’s words, ‘how external borders of a nation/civilisation are reproduced internally’ at the familial level.[3] In the context of a rising tide of conservative and increasingly xenophobic neoliberal governments worldwide, and their pathological obsession with protecting everything within their borders, the family becomes critical in fractally maintaining national policy; the family functions as ‘an internal border in the core of society, to be protected from external intervention’.[4] The result, however, is an Oedipal matrix that ‘closes in on itself’, and Lanthimos reflects this at the linguistic, visual, and auditory level.[5]

As detailed previously I turn to Lacan, and Ben Tryer’s reading of the Lacanian phobia, to situate this claim within my psycho-linguistic framework. Zizek pithily reminds us of ‘Lacan’s thesis’: ‘“the unconscious is Outside”’.[6] Dogtooth demonstrates the total extent to which ‘man’s desire is structured by the “decentred” Big Other, the Symbolic Order’ and that what Subjects desire is ‘predetermined by the Big Other, the Symbolic space in which [they] dwell’.[7] It is also worth noting, prior to my analysis of the escape attempt at Dogtooth’s ending, that ‘even when desires are transgressive […] this very transgression is conditioned by what it transgresses’.[8] Lanthimos extends this logic of familial borders as defined by the Symbolic to a perverse extreme. As Tryer suggests in his article ‘The Tongue is Not My Own’, Dogtooth is built upon a ‘phobic logic’, wherein the Father uses his powers of phallic signification to create a strictly controlled Symbolic Order of the Inside, which designates anything beyond the confines of the house, anything Outside, as posing an existential, Real threat to the lives of the family; the Outside is filled with ‘dangers that lurk’, but ‘if you stay inside, you are protected’.

A Lacanian phobia functions to counteract the anxiety felt when a Father does not clearly enough define a set of Symbolic structures by which a child can coordinate their desire; by focusing this anxiety on a specific object or space, that anxiety can be transformed into an intense fear of the chosen object and thus provide a determining ideal that compensates for their otherwise lacking Symbolic. Lacan describes this link between Fatherhood and phobia: ‘in order for there to be three terms in the [Oedipal] triangle, there must be a closed space, and organisation of the Symbolic world that is called the Father’, ‘phobia is of that order’.[9] Lanthimos extends this phobic logic to its conclusion, by ‘presenting phobia as equivalent to paternal metaphor, phobic signification as phallic signification’, he exposes the neoliberal family as an always-already phobic structure.[10]

This is depicted most obviously through the Father’s close control of language. The film opens with a shot of a tape recorder playing a woman’s voice reading out today’s ‘new words’: ‘sea’, ‘motorway’, ‘excursion’, and ‘carbine’. The definitions given are incorrect, but resignification alone does not make a phobia. What makes these resignifications phobic is how the chosen definitions are ‘regulated by a sharp distinction between inside and out’; any word that describes something from the Real Outside is redefined and transformed into something Inside that poses no threat to the Father’s authority.[11] Of all the words offered in this scene, ‘sea’ is the most obviously Outside, beyond the domestic border. The definition given is that ‘a sea is a leather armchair with wooden arms’, specifically ‘like the one we have in our living room’, before offering the helpful example: ‘don’t stand on your feet, sit on the sea to have a quiet chat with me’. Not only is the ‘sea’ misdefined to a point of uselessness, it is resignified to compound the Father’s phobic Symbolic that privileges domestic spaces and interactions. Similarly, ‘motorway’ and ‘excursion’, two words that could aid escape from the house, are neutered of these threatening meanings and resignified as a kind of ethereal ‘wind’ and a material used to ‘construct floors’ respectively. With this tactic the Father can eradicate the Outside, and the alternative possibilities therein, from the minds of his children.  

Another example of this phobic-phallic signification takes place in the family living room. The Father chooses a record to play and sits beside the record player to ‘translate’ the English lyrics for his children. The viewer instantly recognises the song as ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ sung by Frank Sinatra. However, the Father understands that to the children Sinatra’s plea to ‘let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars’ represents a meaningless void ripe for resignification. He offers a running translation: ‘Dad loves us, Mum loves us, do we love them? Yes, we do. I love my brothers and sisters because they love me as well’, ‘my parents are proud of me because I’m doing just fine, but I will always try harder’, ‘my house, you are beautiful and I love you and I will never leave you’. He tells them it is their Grandfather singing for them. Outside media that contains Outside language – language that could, and will, come to pose a threat to his phobic order – is resignified into the context of Oedipal domestic relations, purifying the words of any subversive potential; the border remains secure.

The Father’s godlike power over language extends further: to the names, or lack thereof, of his children. The proper name’s purpose is to call a Subject into being by bestowing an identifying signifier upon them; ‘the proper name bestows a Symbolic mandate upon the Subject, situating [them] in the structure of the chain of signifiers’.[12] In both the dialogue and the credits, the characters are referred to only as ‘Dad’, ‘Mum’, ‘Son’, ‘Brother’, ‘Daughter’ and ‘Sister’. By reducing the family members to ‘terms in an Oedipal equation’ the Father denies them full subjectivisation within the Symbolic, any kind of meaningful life beyond their roles in subordination to him, and any possibility of creating an alternative kinship or political arrangement. These tactics have a number of psychic effects on the children. Though the ‘emotionless style of acting’, ‘lack of psychological development’, and their appearance like ‘marionettes or robots’ has offended some critics who claim that this style ‘fosters an intellectual distancing that weakens […] the film’s impact’, I argue that this style accurately represents the lack of subjectivisation and selfhood resulting from the Father’s reduction of them to Oedipal roles.[13] For example, when Christina – the young woman paid to sexually service ‘the eldest’ – asks him what he dreams about, he is only able to refer to a mundane domestic incident wherein his Mother falls into the family pool; their external flatness helps to better reflect the psychological limitations and borders enforced through the Father’s phobic-phallic linguistic tactics and refusal to properly interpellate them.

If one considers Lanthimos’ cinematographic choices, this linguistic argument can be extended. Psaras notes that Dogtooth ‘persistently decapitates its characters’; throughout the film characters are cut off by the frame at the neck, leaving only their body in view.[14] Zizek claims in Organs Without Bodies that ‘subjectivisation refers to the “whole person” as the correlate of the body’, and that ‘the ultimate perverse vision would have been that the entire human body, inclusive of the head, is nothing but a combination of partial organs’, before going on to suggest that ‘the effect of closeup shots and of strangely twisted and contorted bodies [….] is to deprive these bodies of their unity’.[15] In the many shots where Lanthimos decapitates characters or features closeups of body parts, he demonstrates how the Father’s phobic regime deprives the children of subjectivisation to such an extent that they become nothing more than a collection of partial organs that belong to, and function under the command of, the Father. 

These shots have special potency during the film’s unglamorous and unstimulating sex scenes. Lanthimos’ sex scenes are stripped of music, harshly and unflatteringly lit, and ‘fetishize shots of specific body parts’; this fetishization of the partial reflects a body and a mind that are themselves partial, denied wholeness, and not their own.[16] The incestuous scene between two siblings ‘lacks any transgressive charge’ because their bodies are partial organs belonging to the Father and have never been territorialized with sexual association; if the sex is the Father’s bidding, then it is not a transgressive act.[17] In contrast, Lanthimos’ cinematography appropriately privileges the Father with a wholeness his children are denied. During a family dinner, the family’s seating positions are established from the point of view of the Father who sits at the head of the table: his back fills frame, sharply in focus, whilst the remainder of the family are out of focus, blurred into obscurity and partiality.

Moreover, Dogtooth contains almost no tracking shots; any sense of movement comes from jump cuts between static shots. A sense of entrapment emerges that reflects the psycho-linguistic and psychical imprisonment of the children. While characters ‘break the edges of the frame, they never exit the frame’, they ‘enter the off-screen space only by using a door place in the background’, thus ‘the filmic frame that “captures” them is never broken’.[18] The camera ‘becomes a border in itself’; Lanthimos’ shots not only trap his characters, but they erase the possibility of off-screen or Outside space, of any way of living other than the Father’s phobic-phallic regime.

Lanthimos’ sound design contributes to this effect. Dogtooth is a quiet film, with little sound beyond the sparse dialogue. However, there are sounds throughout the film that, though technically non-diegetic, can in every instance be linked back to a diegetic source: the parents’ voices, especially the Father’s, are carried over from one scene to another, continuing to exert control when they are no longer present in the shot; the piano keys played over the film’s title sequence can also be heard played by the son one evening as the family sit together; the music that plays as the children take part in one of their parents’ exploitative games – this one entailing their random distribution across the grounds whilst blindfolded before racing back to their Mother – is the same music that the parents listen to on headphones, in perfect synchronisation, during sexual intercourse. Lanthimos’ sound design, therefore, allows for no reference, no signifier, Outside the film itself, Outside the strictly bordered Inside that Lanthimos and the Father choose to present. Celik describes the effect of this decision: ‘film itself takes the role of the cassette player […] becoming part of the homemade media that further encloses the narrative, accelerates the entrapment’; the film sounds just as phobic as the Father at its centre.

Few things pose a meaningful threat to the Father’s phobic regime, but media from the Outside, if able to find its way Inside without his knowledge, poses an existential challenge; foreign signifiers that gesture towards the feared Outside risk exposing the children to a world beyond his control, beyond the fantasmatic limits he sets on their imaginations, beyond the Oedipal matrix. To the Father, Christina represents the serpent in his carefully constructed Eden, ‘the bringer of knowledge and therefore of evil’.[19] In return for a sexual favour she secretly trades a collection of videotapes with one of the Daughters. Though Christina and the Daughter are swiftly punished by the Father, the damage is already done. Previously unheard-of signifiers flood her subjectivity; after secretly viewing Jaws and Rocky, the Daughter begins to re-enact boxing matches, shark attacks, and recites dialogue from both. Most significantly, she picks a name for herself, settling for ‘Bruce’. In doing so she subjectivises herself, finally claiming space in a Symbolic Order beyond her Father’s phobic logic, gaining a new level of agency in the process. This agency manifests itself in an urge to resist the Father’s regime, and a language with which she can do so. After the incestuous scene the Daughter recites the following to her brother: ‘If you do it again, I’ll gut you, you bitch. I swear on my daughter’s life that you and your gang will soon flee the neighbourhood’. Though almost comically out of place, these words represent a linguistic weapon with which the Daughter can arm herself and express her anger, disgust, and will to violence; a linguistic invasion from the Outside grants her a linguistic means of testing the Father’s carefully constructed Inside.  

Bruce’s newfound linguistic agency facilitates and inspires material resistance. The Father’s phobic-phallic order is constructed around one clause in the Symbolic contract that promises eventual escape, but this clause is founded on an impossibility: they are only ‘ready’ to leave the house when their dogtooth falls out; this impossibility keeps his phobic order at a comfortable distance from the Outside Real. The newly subjectivised Bruce, however, adopts what Zizek has called a position of ‘over-orthodoxy’ in response to this condition; Bruce’s agency allows her to take her Father’s word more seriously than he is willing to take itself, she adopts the impossible position.[20] She does so by walking to the family bathroom, taking a small dumbbell with her. She stares into the mirror, wraps her hand around the dumbbell and with incredible force smashes the dumbbell into her mouth, aimed directly at the dogtooth. Bruce is no longer willing to wait for the impossible; for a fleeting moment, reclaimed signifiers and Symbolic space allow her to take control of her fate and strike against the family.

In this moment Bruce transforms herself from a partial object – an isolated cog in the Father’s fractal body-politic – into a far more dangerous and subversive autonomous partial object. Working in complete opposition to the Father’s phobic regime, she briefly embodies a drive that ‘ignores the dialectic of the subject’s desire’ as it has been prescribed up to that point, her self-harm reflecting ‘a violent reformation of the very substance of the Subject’s being’; the only way Bruce can break out of the fantasmatic limits set by the Father is to first break them out of herself or, as Zizek wittily summarises, ‘in order to attack the enemy, you first have to beat the shit out of yourself’.[21] What is also striking about this scene, considering that it is inspired by an invasion of Outside language, is its eerie silence. This is because Bruce’s actions touch the unbearable silence of the hitherto impossible Real; by completing an act that ‘within a given Symbolic universe appears to be impossible’, she ruptures the linguistic fabric upon which his regime is founded, and all that was banished to the pre-Oedipal, Real Outside, bursts into the Inside.[22] With each strike against herself, Bruce begins to ‘change the [fantasmatic] coordinates of her situation’ by cutting herself loose ‘from the precious object through whose possession [the Father] kept [her] in check’.[23] Every blow to her face is a blow to the phobic order; by smashing her tooth Bruce sets herself Outside of the Father’s laws and takes the first steps to collapsing his xenophobic Oedipal regime.

My reading of what follows, however, is far less optimistic than her brief moment of revolution might suggest. Having fulfilled the impossible demand, Bruce leaves the house and hides in the boot of her Father’s car. In the ensuing panic, the family set about looking for her. Not considering that she may be hiding within the grounds, the Father drives to work the next morning oblivious to her presence in the vehicle. The final shot of the film shows the back of the car, parked outside the factory where the Father works, with no sound, no movement, and only the implication that Bruce remains within before cutting to black. In response to more optimistic critics that describe her escape as the beginning-of-the-end of the Father’s phobic-phallic regime, I turn to an apt quotation from Wittgenstein: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.[24] Metzidakis helps further specify when he says that Bruce’s embrace of foreign signifiers from the videotape, though subversive, demonstrate that she has ‘merely substituted one artificial reality, i.e. one language […] for another’.[25] Even if one counters this with the technically correct claim that all linguistic realities are artificial to some extent and that, at least, this new one is not openly phobic, patriarchal, and violent, the two blockbusters are unlikely to provide her with a full enough linguistic alternative to her Father’s regime to allow for any kind of meaningful freedom in the long-feared Outside.

I argue the final shot proves that, though Bruce may have crossed the first, and perhaps the most daunting, border set by her Father, she is ill-equipped to begin building a liveable alternative on the Outside. At this point I refer my reader back to Zizek’s earlier comment about transgressive desires being conditioned by the Big Other: her Father only ever described the first step of this escape, she is incapable of imagining what comes next. Either, I suggest, she is bleeding-out from her injuries in the car, possibly dead or dying. Or, her rebellion has reached its linguistic limit; her new signifiers, though subversive and agency-instilling, offer no guidance in the Outside beyond the home. As such, the locked metal box of the Father’s boot represents nothing more than another of his Symbolic borders, another Inside. Moreover, moments after her escape, the Father decides to retrieve Rex, a dog he has been having trained into a violent and vicious guard dog at a local facility. Rex’s name hardly requires detailed analysis; his return is representative of a doubling-down of patriarchal power. Bruce’s escape has not provided a substantial enough threat to induce the regime’s collapse, but it has shaken the Father enough that he insists on compounding his phobic-phallic order. This may seem pessimistic, but the Father’s phobic logic is so thoroughly described at the linguistic, visual, and auditory level that I cannot believe Lanthimos deems the ending to be a total revolution.

In Dogtooth, Lanthimos depicts the most extreme version of the xenophobic conservative family and its power to dictate the fantasmatic limits of Subjects by using language to transform anything Outside of the neoliberal-Oedipal matrix into a phobic object to be feared, and as such limit the possibility to imagine and create alternative ways of living and an alternative politics. All of this, however, begs a logical next question: What tools are available to Lanthimos’ characters, and to us, for meaningfully challenging these regimes and the Oedipal structures that underpin them?

[1] Psaras, Weird Wave, p. 66.

[2] Anjana Janardhan, ‘Why Rules Are There to Be Broken in the World of Yorgos Lanthimos’, last accessed 20 August 2020, <bfi.org.uk>.

[3] Ipek A. Celik, ‘Family as Internal Border in Dogtooth’, Frontiers of Screen History: Imagining European Borders in Cinema 1945-2010, ed. Raita Merivirta, Kimmo Ahonen, Heta Mulari, and Rami Mahka, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 219-20.

[4] Ibid., p. 224.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, (New York: October Books, 1992), p. 76.

[7] Slavoj Zizek, How to Read Lacan, (New York/London: W. W. Norton, 2007), p. 42.

[8] Zizek, How to Read Lacan, p. 42.

[9] Jacques Lacan, Seminaire IV, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, (Paris: Seuil, 1994), p. 58

[10] Tryer, ‘Tongue’, p. 26.

[11] Tryer, ‘Tongue’, p. 26.

[12] Tryer, ‘Tongue’, p. 19.

[13] Dan Georgakas, ‘Dogtooth’, Cinéaste, 35.3, (Summer 2010), p.49; Marilia Kaisar, ‘Weird Greek Wave Cinema: A New Aesthetic Era of Greek Cinema’, last accessed 20 August 2020, <medium.com>; Georgakas, ‘Dogtooth’,     p. 49.

[14] Psaras, Weird Wave, p. 74.

[15] Slavoj Zizek, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, (London: Routledge Classics, 2015), p. 153.

[16] Psaras, Weird Wave, p. 67.

[17] Fisher, ‘Family Syndrome’, p. 23.

[18] Celik, ‘Internal Border’, pp. 288-9.

[19] Fisher, ‘Family Syndrome’, p. 25.

[20] Tryer, ‘Tongue’, p. 20.

[21] Zizek, Organs Without Bodies, p. 154; Sophie Fiennes, dir., The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, (UK: P Guide Productions / ICA Projects, 2006), [on DVD: P Guide Ltd., 2007].

[22] Slavoj Zizek qtd in: Tryer, ‘Tongue’, p. 21.

[23] Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, (London: Verso, 2000), p. 122.

[24] Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus, (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), p. 82.

[25] Metzidakis, ‘No Bones’, p. 381.