There is only one: Aphasia.
Aphasia: loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage. (Oxford American Dictionaries).
When I’ve watched Dogtooth with others (TW: for Graphic Violence, Incest, Problematic Consent Dynamics, abuse of just about every capacity), it feels as if everyone watching the film experiences aphasia. I felt as if I did, too, the first time I watched the film. Alone, I was left shocked. I was also angry. The cinematography was unforgiving. How soulless, I thought. Unsympathetic. Later, I would discover that my mind had not been made up.
Dogtooth, while one of the more uncomfortable films I’ve sat through, stuck with me for a long time. Yorgos Lanthimos, who, unbeknownst to many American viewers, has actually made two films prior to Dogtooth, is an intriguing filmmaker. Intriguing enough for me to go to the Siskel Film Center to see his most recent film, Alps.
Once again, I experienced aphasia. I texted Filmme Fatale almost immediately.
“You were totes right about Alps. Rlyyy good,” I said.
We both recollected the beginning of Dogtooth; a false recollection. Violence was at the forefront of our mind. Dogtooth does not begin with physical violence, but with a lesson. The film follows three adult children of two incredibly controlling parents. The parents have created their own reality at their homestead. Much of the film follows how the children are educated by their parents. Their headmaster is father.
In all but one scene where father is present, we see him first, or we begin the scene from his perspective.
father, with assistance from mother, creates a system of challenges and rewards. Constantly creating challenges, whoever gets the most stickers “wins” the ability to pick the entertainment for an evening. (It appears the favorite pastime is “movies,” which are all home movies. There is no world outside this house for the children.) With a unique set of rules and language (for examples, a Zombie is a small yellow flower), this alternate reality is created which constantly tests and reaffirms the children’s loyalty to their parents.
The children are told that once they loose their right dogtooth (“Or left. No matter.”), they are ready to enter in to the world.
father and mother create myths to fuel the world they’ve created. What’s so dangerous about the world outside of their compound?
The children’s oldest sibling, who we are led to believe they’ve never met and most likely does not exist, ventured out into the world. He wasn’t prepared; he hadn’t lost his dogtooth. The world’s most dangerous animal, the cat, has killed him.* You must never leave the house until you are ready or you will face the consequences that you deserve.
What one “deserves” is a concept frequently thrown around by mother and father. Its an absurd concept, as it is revealed that everything the children are given is uneven and meant to pit them against one another in competition. It is a parable for the way in which market based capitalism works (undoubtedly connected to Greek economic concerns). The patriarchal power structure picks and chooses situations and outcomes as it pleases and must continually create structures to support its manic decisions in order to function on a basic level.
This is where Christina comes into play.
Christina is the lone outsider. A security guard at father’s place of work, Christina is brought home to have sex with father’s son, for what reason it is unclear. It can only be assumed that since he is the lone man amongst the children, he must bear a child to continue the family name.
For this family, sex is a tool. Originally to serve a purpose that is not pleasure (son is uncomfortable with doing anything but missionary sex when Christina asks for him to “lick her”), Christina, unsatisfied with her position in this family’s world, adapts to the power structure to get the pleasure she wants. Starting with giving the elder daughter a headband in the return for oral pleasure, the elder daughter eventually asks for more in return: Movies.
This is where the father’s control really begins to break down. While father blames Christina for bringing filth (influence and outside power) into his insular world, it is seeing Rocky that really begins the elder daughter’s rebellious streak (Speaking to the power of film to influence audiences/teach/control?). Eventually, she realizes there is no way to escape the perpetual mental, emotional, and physical violence father commits and encourages, than to force her own freedom.
For the eldest daughter, this means committing violence upon her person. Born into the fabric of this problematic system, she must damage herself to be free.
The elder daughter leaves the house quickly, opens her fathers trunk, and gets in.
The film ends here, just outside of father’s place of work, leaving many things unanswered. Does she escape? And how do we escape the physical, mental, and emotional violence of systems that perpetuate such violence that the film portrays?
Where Dogtooth looks at institutional structures, Alps (TW: Violence, Problematic Consent Dynamics)takes a more personal approach, focusing on social structures. As Filmme Fatale put perfectly as we continued our discussion, “At the end of Dogtooth, we feel helpless. At the end of Alps, we have stockholm syndrome.”
Managing to give us even less information than Lanthimos does in Dogtooth, Alps follows a group of four people who earn money playing the recently deceased in order to help grieving family members and friends; a type of so-called therapy. They call themselves Alps because no one can replace them, but, like the Alps are to all other mountains, they are to all other people: They can replace any person. Power structures are still at play here, especially with the leader of the group, Mont Blanc, who delivers the most aggressive violence in the film.
Early on in Alps, Aggeliki Papoulia (who also played the elder daughter in Dogtooth and is outstanding in both films) is told by Mont Blanc that a teenage tennis player recently entered the hospital he and Aggeliki’s character work at. Her condition is critical. Her family would be perfect customers. While we witness the Alps work through other cases they have been hired on to, they are constantly fighting for which memories they can be creating; which lives they can slip inside.
Aggeliki’s character deeply desires to play the tennis player. She, herself, was a former tennis player. She feels unloved and that her life is without purpose. She can relive her teenage years if she can help this particular family grieve. Aggeliki’s character ensures that she’s the only Alp member to witness the daughter’s death inside the hospital. Going rogue, she takes the job without telling the team.
Of course, this can only go unknown for so long. Such a case is a demanding role. The family’s grief is intense. Mistakes are made, and the rest of Alps discovers that the tennis player has died. Aggeliki’s character, being an improper fit for the role, is replaced by the other female in the team (played wonderfully by Ariane Labed, who’s own narrative throughout the film is incredibly interesting) and Aggeliki’s real life (at least, what we are led to believe is real) quickly falls apart in a performance that she gives her all.
At the film’s conclusion, the audience doesn’t know what is real and what is performance in Alps. And, perhaps this is why Alps isn’t connecting with audiences the way Dogtooth did. Lanthimos unfortunately forgets that whether or not we are performing, it is all real. Yet, the question remains: How do we break free?
Once detesting Lanthimos’s framing, I’ve grown to love it, as it is in perfect sync with his stylized writing. Lanthimos’s characters have personalities, but they can’t express them. They don’t know how. Aphasia. They are the results of their gray, controlling, mechanized surroundings. In these films, we witness characters discovering where they fit and how they can work systems to their advantage. The cinematography is reflective of the rigid structures that attempt to shape and control the characters. The camera is “Alienating and sterile,” filmme-fatale says (nailing it again), which is in contrast to the anarchist spirit that is discovered by the eldest daughter in Dogtooth. In Alps, it is the structure that Aggeliki’s character craves.
I’m curious how far Yorgos Lanthimos will take his current aesthetic. While some have called Alps unoriginal in its structural similarity to Dogtooth, I found it incredibly compelling. It is the yin to Dogtooth’s yang, and feels essential to the world that Lanthimos is creating. Yorgos Lanthimos’s surrealist approach constructs mirror worlds from scratch that reveals ways in which we are educated, manipulated, and communicate. Perhaps that’s why so frequently people are found left in silence at the end of his films.
Now, on to the next lesson.
Much thanks to Filmme Fatale for letting me include our text convo. Dogtooth is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray, and on Netflix. Alps is currently playing in select theatres, because it is a Greek film.
*I still don’t know if this is even a theory, but the whole cat thing in Dogtooth TOTALLY continues to affirm that cats are always positioned on the side of those without power. Sure, cats are presented by father as the most dangerous animal, but this is all a lie. What this means is that if a cat ever enters their fucking yard, GOODBYE CAT, FOR YOU ARE DEAD. In cinema, cats are the enemy of the state and patriarchy, and someone should really find a film that proves me wrong.
**The depiction of sex is critical in both films, too. Sex serves only a function, perhaps again hinting to how rigid structures in our world are. Sex is not pleasurable. In Dogtooth, it is simple for procreation. In Alps, is a sign of weakness and loss of control; characters only have sex when they are at their lowest points. I would like to expand on this reading at some point, but currently it is underdeveloped…