All human beings are born as ascribed members of society, bound to their social affiliations. The basic societal unit, family nurtures normalized individuals who conform to modern societal and behavioral norms. On the contrary, imagine an unorthodox household that non-conforms and attempts to confine their grown children within a fenced perimeter. These subjects would have to exist in the domain of mendacity, their self-consciousness and self-distinction taking place only in any possible logic of discordance.
This is a masterful portrayal of the Greek film Dogtooth that encapsulates inquiries of whether we have been actors (or not) on the stage of life subscribing to conformist behavioral patterns. The Argus entertains the idea that we need intellectual courage to invest in a given position in this social construction called reality, to escape from the doctrine of community custody. In response, The Argus explores the cinematic universe of the movie through the Lacanian theory, looking into the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs, and ideologies.
WARNING: The contents of this film are disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.
Nobody is allowed to infiltrate the cloistered life of one unnamed family; run by a protection mechanism of extreme obedience created by a dominant paternal. This human laboratory can only be collapsed when one’s “Dogtooth,” the canines, falls out. The parents do not care how aged their children are, who look to be in their 20’s, redefining the conditions of maturity with family standards. The siblings-beyond the designation of elder daughter, son and younger daughter-are taught with fallacious explanations for natural phenomena. However, the elder daughter rebels by risking DIY-dentistry and runs out of the gateway. Unfortunately, she hides in the car trunk, tied with father’s doctrine that edicts: “to leave the house in safety one should use the car and that one can learn to drive when the dogtooth grows back.”
Dr. Jacques Lacan, the most important contributor of psychoanalysis since Sigmund Freud, asserted that a child’s acquisition of language occurs in the context of interactions. He structured the infant development stage into three fundamental complexes that represent the family relationship: the weaning complex related to the mother, the inferiority complex towards siblings and the Oedipus complex with the imago of the father.
In Lacan’s theory, the primitive phase begins when the womb generates. This causes the separation from the mother and shatters a child’s illusion that the mother is always there for them. Then with the presence of a father, the child’s confusion intensifies. That is the moment when the love towards the mother, the idealized figure, turns into obsession, leading the child to long for the state before birth.
The complex of intrusion happens when a child finds out there is another one to share the mother’s love. Growing up, the feeling of jealousy helps the child to recognize him or herself. Scholars call this the “Mirror stage.” “‘That image is me. I am tall. I have black hair. I can touch my toes’ etc. is always dependent on the language we have available to us at the time, which means our understanding of ourselves and our bodies can change through time. This tells us that the initial encounter with the mirror is never truly or wholly us, but a misrecognition we can never fully know,” elaborated Mark Ranger, an autism practitioner at the Southern Autism Practice. The imaginary murder of the sibling is actually a disguise for the sophisticated mental identification of self by distinguishing from the other-in this case, the sibling. Naturally, the capacity for speech will develop, requiring the symbolic representations to articulate the adopted beliefs of their own. Thus, in this regard, the phallic mother gets repressed into the unconscious as “incest is imaginary in Lacan’s terms because it is an attempt to bypass the fundamental symbolic prohibition,” explains Todd McGowan, a professor at the University of Vermont.
This is how the structure of Imaginary Order, the fundamental narcissistic world that a child creates in one’s fantasy for oneself and one’s ideal object, gives a way to the Symbolic Order, the pre-established world that greets the subject by the web of signification and language. Hence, the phallic symbol plays a function of signifying all signifiers of the familial network by granting the child a specific position as someone’s son or daughter. Lacan introduces this as a doctrine of paternal metaphor, namely the Name-of-the-Father, as he saw the father as the first representative of the demarcated world of grown-ups, regulating all the repression of desire between the ego and the mother. Here, the Oedipal identification goes through the child as the symbolic father castrates the child through the subject’s insertion into language. In detail, the Oedipus complex is used to describe the child’s experience of having erotic attachment to one parent and hostility toward the other, originating from the Greek myth of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother. It demonstrates the determinative dimension of human experience through the familial relationship; as Lacan stated, “man’s desire breaks out from the desire of the other.”
“In Dogtooth, the parents attempt to keep the children in an imaginary isolation away from the external influence of the Symbolic Order. It is interesting that the girl can only escape by undergoing a self-castration or symbolic loss. Freud claims that the loss of a tooth stands in for castration in dreams. And castration is what occurs (for both sexes) through entrance into the symbolic order. There would seem of imaginary and real in the children’s imprisonment,” says McGowan. The act of liberation itself tells you the name of the title. The family life in the film is maintained by the phobic mythology that traps the children in a parentally determined state of immaturity.
At the scene where we see the father at the dog training facility, from a dialogue of the dog trainer, it becomes all clear about the method which works for the children’s education. “A dog is like clay. Our job here is to mold them.” Lacan clearly argues that for the children to move out from the pre-linguistic Imaginary Order into the Symbolic, it is inextricable for them to encounter the domain of the father. The patriarch of Dogtooth works as the Law, but is trying to create a world without castration fixing the innocence of the adult children by using this Symbolic realm. But such a world may insulate subjects from the Real as well. It would be right to say that breaking from this regime is touching the Real in Lacan’s sense, even though it comes via the outside world and it is different.
Like the girl who sets up psychotic retreat from the Symbolic structure, the subject is always alienated from the determination of signifiers and thus of society. When one’s thought is true to serve as a principle change, this stands in a contradictory relationship in that it works through the failure of society to work perfectly as we humans are both the product and negation. “I could either argue the father traps children in an imaginary order that does not allow them to enter into the larger symbolic order, or he establishes a distinct symbolic structure away from the social order and traps them inside it. I would lean toward the first one, but with the provision that one is always in the symbolic order, from the point of birth (and even in the womb). The symbolic order shapes the imaginary retreat from it,” interprets McGowan.
In the opening scene of the film, a recording of a female voice that gives lessons of a series of “today’s new words” flows out. For instance, “Sea” is the leather chair with wooden armrests like the one in the living room. Consequently, such scenes that depict the children sometimes picking up new words from elsewhere, when the parents were caught off guard and innocently asking them its meaning take place. One might expect these cases to have fazed the parents, but they adroitly ask from whom children heard these words and redefine with recognized signifiers into radically different signifieds.
“Each unsomething thus becomes a something: the flowers one has already picked from the garden; the well-worn seating in the living room. In other words, these critical efforts to read the new language argue for a parental strategy of bridging, or a collapsing of the distance between, the known and unknown world, a coming-closer of language-its literal domestication-and one that suggests a sufficiency to language: it names what the children already know, names what they have already seen,” elucidates Eugenie Brinkema of MIT.
This is particularly tied to Lacan’s point about language shaping the growth of the child. Lacan inherited Freud’s discovery of the Unconscious and it shows that there is always another meaning or interpretation that comes from the Unconscious we try to repress. That is why Lacan valued the signifier over the signified, showing the role of metonymy and metaphor in any act of speech. He believed that we are born into the “bath of language,” which means that our parents speak about us before we are even born-a space is made for us in language. We do not grasp the language enough to challenge the limits of this space until we reach the age of the children in Dogtooth.
“In the film, the words for certain objects appear as tormented language variations but this shows exactly the power of the signifier over the thing it signifies. There is play and slippage between signifiers that allows us to create realities of our own. In this way, we all interpret the world in our own singular ways. Within language, the subject vainly tries to represent itself. The subject is an effect of the signifier, put into language,” explains Ranger. That way, we can become ourselves rather than just accommodating the language of others, which has always come with unconscious meaning or importance from that side as well.
The only child that ever shows any sort of disbelief at anything that happens around her is the elder daughter, Bruce. At the start, the family members are all nameless but the elder daughter grants herself a name: Bruce, which is the name of the shark in the movie Jaws, by telling her younger sister to call her so. She recognizes the power of having names by performing cunnilingus to Christina, who visits periodically to keep a lid on her brother’s raging sex hormones, in exchange for the VHS tapes: Rocky 4, Jaws. Oddly, the father is unconcerned about providing any incestuous measures to satisfy his two daughters’ sexual desires, neglecting to imagine Christina might tempt the daughters. The elder introduces this body licking act to her young sister, and at this point we can face these girls’ infant sexuality being displayed like animals.
As the father wise up that these uncanny behaviors are generated from the outsider, he punishes the visitor and Bruce with violence. He fears the outside influence and assign the elder to substitute Christina’s role; to incest with her brother. This must have been the catalyst for the elder daughter to take actions to leave the house, detecting that something is going wrong. As Ranger remarks, this phenomenon proves that “in terms of RSI, it is important to remember that the Real always returns. It usually takes the form of violence, often physical or emotional. The Real are the things we cannot understand through the rules of language associated with the Symbolic.”
The point of this alienation is not a loss of what one has but the vehicle to freedom and that the girl must speak another language that shows she is alienated from herself. “Without alienation, we remain within an imaginary circle that allows us no possibility for freedom. But freedom consists always in speaking someone else’s language. The idea of escaping alienation is the ultimate trap,” explains McGowan. Thus, the long take of the trunk which inhibits the girl because of her lack of knowledge tells us that “you are not speaking with a tongue that is not your own” may be the message of this meticulous linguistic project.
What is it that Lacanian psychoanalysis has to tell us about our real world? Sheila Kunkle, a professor at the Metropolitan University answers that, “Thinking there is a “real world,” that is somewhere “out there” beyond our reach to conceive of is not so helpful; rather, our very “real world,” itself is incomplete, filled with contradictions, and accessible to us through fantasies, which frame our desires, and also our experiences of enjoyment.” Such unsettling films like Dogtooth make inquiries upon the world, whether or not we are encouraging convenient lies at the expense of obvious truths. The Argus anticipates our readers to be the self-seeking customers who grasp their living environments and continue on productive pursuits in the essential functions of language beyond the human dialogue: the social order.
By Kwak Hyun-jeong
Staff Reporter of Theory & Critique Section