Dogtooth

The Treatment of Violence in European Art Films. Part#2

Violence represented by the screams of the girl when she cuts the dolls’ body parts in Dogtooth, that echoe the camera decisions of decapitating characters in the composition.

Violence represented by the screams of the girl when she cuts the dolls’ body parts in Dogtooth, that echoe the camera decisions of decapitating characters in the composition.

It’s plain common sense that the things we’re taught since our childhood are based on reality. It is a fact that at some point we will have to surpass our home boundaries and make ourselves complete individuals living in that reality. The purpose of education it’s to show us how to live, to make sure we build ourselves a good Decalogue. Our life needs values to distinguish what’s important and what’s not, and above all as a rule for our behaviour, it helps us to make decisions.

But, what if all that culture, education and everything we have been taught from our parents it’s based on a lie? The family Dogtooth depicts has this main difference (or maybe not). Completely obsessed by the violence that dominates the world, the parents of this peculiar family decide to isolate themselves from the real world so they can protect their children. They decide to build the mental fort in which they transform their kids into pets by the education they decide to give to them.

As if they were raising animals they train their kids to keep them away from anger and rage. Language is the main tool they have to accomplish their goal. If you can’t name it then it does not exist. Our thoughts are mainly there thanks to our language, our mental imagery of things construct our reality.

When we think about a gun we go to a mental image of what we have been told about it and also to go back to the relations we might have had with the specific object. In an arbitrary way language names that with the letters g-u-n. However, if we’re told a gun is “a beautiful white bird” and we end up never seeing an actual gun it does not make any difference because gun just does not exist.

The three kids of Dogtooth are in their twenties although they seem to be entering adolescence. Their parents have made them completely dependent and that’s what makes it impossible for them to grow, to be mature. They are not provided with the mental tools you need in order to construct yourself with the purpose of never wanting to question anything and never wanting to leave home. As a consequence these three kids have conditioned responses to anything that happens in their daily life.

The second son does not dear to leave the house, just a step away from a peculiar toy his education prevents him to cross that limit

The second son does not dear to leave the house, just a step away from a peculiar toy his education prevents him to cross that limit.

Just like it happens in A Clockwork Orange with the violence of the Estate, these kids have a complete lack of free will. Any trace of emotion has been erased, and just like Alex de Large, they have been raised to supress the real emotion.

Despite the fact that every word related to violence or transportation it’s banned, violence pours out of them as their animal instincts fight to get out. Some behaviours are so intrinsic to our existence that are impossible to avoid. These parents can’t escape from violence.

"Let's play a resistance game". Lacking a vocabulaty solid framework of refernce, these kids are capable of anything.

“Let’s play a resistance game”. Lacking a vocabulary solid framework of reference, these kids are capable of doing everything, even if it’s dangerous game.

Games are a way to educate children. Create a fiction for them to learn roles and behaviours. Dogtooth’s home is the scenario where these three human beings have ever lived and as four walls and a garden are not enough, they spend their time playing games. Many types of violence sprinkle these playful scenes. Competition and beating each other it’s what’s makes it worth it.

What makes all this work is the direct relation the spectator makes with his or her own understanding of reality. It makes us question our own life. Parents always want the best for their children and the reason behind Dogtooth’s parents decision is love. Nevertheless “why” is not a plausible excuse anymore if we focus on “how” this is being done.  Every person have their own reference to compare, thanks to that education they have a prism to discern and make the engine of critical thinking work. Dogtooth’s children lack of prism makes them trapped in unreality.

Probably in order to avoid a violent episode the parents decide to open the fort gate to another member: Christina. Male needs have to be satisfied and Cristina is responsible of this task. It’s quite a risk but the celibacy could have worse consequences. Cristina ends up taking advantage of the situation. She has power over people that lives in a mental jail and that makes them easy targets. As she’s corrupted by living in the “real world” her presence will also contaminate the kids, specifically the oldest one. Christina tears apart this castle made of sand with a simple video. Out of the blue the oldest daughter -that subsequently calls herself Bruce- has a window to the world. This offers her a whole new vision and the main cause of rebellion from her parent’s authority. As an adolescent she breaks up with their parents and tries to separate from that symbolic order. Through a painful act she escapes from that jail. All that prevention and sacrifice Dogtooth’s parents did are ruined. A yet impossible event is forced and leads the oldest daughter to her freedom. By the education they give to their children only one way out which is pain and eventually death. These children can’t live in other world apart from the home they were raised in. The kids can’t live on their own, they can’t be independent, and if their parents disappear all they leave for them is pain and suffering.

The visual language chosen for the mise en scene of the film it’s determined by the concept it encloses. The framing brakes every possible film rule as we understand about “how is properly done” in the classic Hollywood cinema. Heads are left out of the frame as the children have no brain at all. Their minds are thoughtless and so their bodies are represented without heads. At the same time their feet are also cut in many occasions, because their feet are not in the ground. The fiction in which the live have made them disable. This disability is shown in every scene. Light is also used to show this state of mind. Overexposed or underexposed shots makes it difficult to the spectator to see as it’s these kids can’t see for themselves neither.

Image composition decapitates character's bodyparts, an an echoe to the reality. These kids cannot complete the whole picture of the world, neither the spectator.

Image composition decapitates character’s bodyparts, an an echoe to the reality the live in. These kids cannot complete the whole picture of the world, neither does the spectator.

 

In conclusion, these directors rely actively on the mechanisms of cinema to deliver violent content to an audience. And the violence is not only on the screen, but also in the way it’s presented. Some cinematic decisions are crucial to the intensity in which the violence is understood and felt by the audience.

The  key elements that have been identified -such as the importance of location, the importance of family unity and the existence of a disruptive element, the importance of verbal language as a tool to build the character’s inner world, the importance of the editing pace and camera decisions such as the use of long takes or uncomfortable visual compositions, among others- have provided a clearer idea about how this films operate and they open the field to explore more about this matter in other art films.

Funny Games (2007)

The Treatment of Violence in European Art Films. Part#1

The theatrical set up in A Clockwork Orange during the rape scene

The theatrical set up in A Clockwork Orange during the rape scene

We may enjoy, as viewers, hearing the music of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie during the fight in the theatre with Billy Boy’s droogs. The visual information, however, acts as a counterpoint with the piece of music, for we are going looking at a rape act.

It is interesting to point out the extreme difference that has a certain action according to the way it is presented. The director’s choices have a lot to do in the way we experiment viewing a violent act such as rape.  We could take for instance Gaspar Noe’s rape scene in Irreversible and analyse the formal differences between them and see how they affect an audience.

Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible rape scene

Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible rape scene

The fact that the director Gaspar Noe decided to reveal the violence in the rape scene with a static shot in one take –no extra diegetic sound effects or music– clearly makes the scene become almost unbearable. In the interview Time destroys all things with David Sterret, Gaspar explains his motivation to shoot it this way:

DS: I’d still like to hear more about why you made the rape scene that incredibly brutal–so long, so close, so anal. It’s a painful scene!

GN: That’s the thing. I could not think of doing a rape scene that would not be painful. Otherwise, you’re not [thinking about] what you’re shooting, what you’re representing. The thing is, you really are emotionally linked to the victim, and not the rapist. In many movies, you get linked to the rapist, because it’s shot from a subjective point of view, the guy coming at the girl with a knife, and so on. But in this case, it’s evident that you are linked to the victim, and not for one second to the aggressor.

Gaspar Noe needs to refer to the emotional link between the spectator and the image in order to explain the power of that scene. The article written by Timothy Nicodemo “Cinematography and Sensorial Assault in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible” refers to the results of a research to measure the reactions of the audience to watching sexual violence onscreen, and points out that Martin Barker lists a number of aspects that he believes constitute the dangers of filmic rape, one of which would appear to support this notion: “There is a belief that to show, for in­stance, a rape on screen is… almost to enact the rape for real. The line between the represented and the real is seen to be particularly fragile in this case”. In Timothy’s words: “such an erasure of the boundary between reality and representation occurs in a number of ways: just as Alex is trapped on the ground, so are we; just as she is trapped within the confines of a small tunnel, so too do we feel the claustrophobic confines; and most importantly, just as Alex must endure the violence for nine unbroken minutes, the spectator must also withstand the event for its entire duration”. And continues: “describing the camerawork in this sequence as “cru­cially static” and committing to an “excruciating . . . sin­gle-shot, emphasizes the “punishing” nature that temporality enacts. Other critics have noted the anti­pathetic nature elicited from the unbroken gaze: the audi­ence must “sit in anguish through a solitary shot” and that “the nastiness lasts eight minutes but feels far longer”.

The painful act of becoming the hopeless witness of violence is in that directorial choice, in the similar way that we were forced to look in the living room at the murder consequences in Funny Games.

In terms of directing, the power within the frame is not only due to its stillness and the long duration. In Haneke’s Funny Games, it definitely has a lot to do with the previous sequence and the shift between the expectations of the audience.

As mentioned before, Haneke wants the audience to be part of the game interpreting the story in the framework of the suspense genre, therefore the viewer feels safe since he thinks he knows what to expect.

As Catherine Wheatley puts it in her book The Ethics of the Image, “the spectator falls into a false sense of security” and Haneke states that: “elements from the history of the suspense thriller appear as quotes -the classical opening, the scene when the boy escapes to the villa- very classical, like Hitchcock.  And the audience only engages with the film when they don’t know what’s going to happen, when they allow themselves hope”.

As Whatley sees it, this statement underlines the necessity to rely on generic conventions, in terms of narrative and formality. She believes that “it also serves as a guideline for what emotional response the spectator will take to that film”. And continues “by stablishing Anna, George and Georgie as a family group who are under threat from two outsiders, Haneke places us on their side. We may draw a sadistic pleasure in watching their struggle, but we are positioned in such a way that we want them to triumph over their captors, at the time and in the manner that comforts to the spectator’s expectations of the suspense thriller’s narrative trajectory.”

Alex de Large breaking the forth wall looking straight to the audience in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Alex de Large breaking the forth wall looking straight to the audience in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Direct interpelation to the audience in Funny Games (1997)

Direct interpelation to the audience in Funny Games (1997)

The participation of the audience is crucial to determine how this films work. They all provide a direct emotional implication from the audience, and in the cases of Funny Games and A Clockwork Orange, they assume that their relationship is one of complicity, highlighting the sense of disturbance in the viewer.

Wheatley highlights that in this sense, in Funny Games the antagonist Paul “does not merely acknowledge the audience as spectators, but he also accuses them being their reason to exist: “the cinematic violence in Funny Games exists only because the audience expects it”.

If these films portray an explicit and verbal demand from the spectator, Dogtooth on its side needs the spectator to exist but this demand happens in a much more internal level.

If Funny Games is completely decontextualized from the time and social background in the story -it only gives hints of the characters that they belong to high social class- Dogtooth completely wipes any trace of evidence of the reality that the characters live outside the walls of their home.

Dogtooth enters the world of the human psyche, perhaps in a more intense -intrusive- way than the other films, since it bases its violence mainly through the manipulation of the meaning of language, proving that a stronger barrier than the one build inside the mind doesn’t exist.

Culture is arbitrary; depending on the place we are born and the people who raise us we understand life in a different way from the rest of human beings. We are DNA completely conditioned by our culture, our education, our family. Everything that has been put in our minds since the very beginning of our existence it’s a perspective from which we understand the world. Our education, our relationships, our trips… All of it contributes to enlarge our knowledge of the realty in front of us. We expose ourselves to reality in order to get in contact with what’s “real” with “truth”. But again, everything has to go through the filter of our mind and everything it has accumulated.

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The Treatment of Violence in European Art Films #Introduction

With the framework of the European art cinema, this research focuses on three films: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997) and Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009).  The link between them is double: on one level, the violence is their constant energy and the epicentre of the drama throughout; and also, the way they express their violence is unique.

To enter the violence that inhabits in the images created by Kubrick, Haneke or Lanthimos, it means to enter a non-conventional world, to explore the unexpected. The art films analysed in this project –the reason to refer to them as art films is confirmed in the opening sequences of each film–, also represent what has been described as the “unpleasant” type of film: these films are going to manipulate you, they are going to make you feel uncomfortable.

The kind of violence they represent could not be analysed without considering the existence of the spectator, so it becomes crucial to understand how these films work in relation to the spectator. Therefore, the following pages will describe the mechanisms within the films that actively involve the audience participation.

This essay supports the idea that their violence could not exist without a framework of reference that only the spectator can provide.

Considering every film a closed, unique universe, it is one of the objectives of this essay to point out and to describe their very own intrinsic way of expressing violence.  This is not an exercise of valuing which one deploys violence in a more effective way –for we cannot objectively measure that impact in an audience–, but it intends to become a critical analysis based on the different elements that operate within each film.

One of the elements that these films share is that they deal in a very strong way with the concept of family unity and the existence of an exterior element that disturbs the desired balanced. Although this is not an accurate point in A Clockwork Orange, for instance, since the role that develops the real family of the main character, Alex De Large, is not determinant for his personal journey (it is presented as an aseptic relationship, and they do not waste a second to substitute him with another child when he is in jail).

 

In a figurative sense, it would be more accurate to consider the figure of the “Father” represented by Beethoven. There is no doubt that Beethoven’s music becomes the real influence for Alex de Large, the real engine of his ultra-violent acts, and moreover, it is indeed Beethoven what motivates the Alex’s climatic rise and fall in his personal journey.

But to a large scale, we could also consider Alex to be the disturbing element that tries to break balance in society, if we were to place the political state on the other side of the equation. What is ironically conveyed in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange is that the Alex must be changed (that means, violently divested from his free will) in order to be inserted in the system as a pacific (an aseptic) individual. And this process is a painful one: he has to give up his love for the music of Beethoven. Through the “Ludovico” treatment, Alex learns to associate the violent impulse with pain. But more painfully, as a mere and isolated casualty during the treatment, the music of Beethoven is accidentally played and he ends up hating it too.

The dichotomy between the balanced unity and the disruptive element that tears that balance apart is double in A Clockwork Orange, because of the way its violence is presented –always a stylized and satirized violence when it’s performed by Alex de Large, and cruel and explicit when the State performs it through the Ludovico treatment–.

The violence of the Government during the Ludovico Experiment in A Clockwork Orange.

The violence of the Government during the Ludovico Experiment in A Clockwork Orange.

 

As mentioned earlier, Alex could very well be considered the disruptive and conflictive element in society. As an audience, we are morally positioned against the violence that Alex does to innocent people, and we tend to reject it. However, when we pay attention to the way this violence is presented, and if we add a critical observation to the relationship that the film establishes with the spectator, Alex is placed at the other side of the equation: it is in fact, the political state meant to be perceived as even a crueller element, more violent, more radical against the individual since the attack not only happens in a physical level, but also at a psychological one. Comparing both acts, Alex’s violence, as brutal as it is, is more perceived as a stylized act, even theatrical, therefore we are morally allowed or legitimated to be relaxed and enjoy the acts of ultra-violence happening in front of our eyes.

In this sense, however, the violence happening in the filmic universes of Dogtooth and Funny Games is not presented in a theatrical manner, but in a very realistic way –in the Bazinian sense of the term–, through the use of long static shots that lock the viewer’s perspective, allowing the audience’s gaze to analyse the frame in detail and absorb the information that it provides. And to another extent, it demands from the viewer the responsibility to think about the present moment (or to analyse the consequences of an act that has just happened) rather than evocating his interest in what will happen next.

A perfect example of this is portrayed in the scene that happens immediately after George’s death in Funny Games. Haneke shifts the codes of cinema language and goes from the perfectly coherent use of generic conventions of the thriller (where the editing pace and the amount of information delivered to the spectator in the choices of shot/reverse shot match the thriller genre) to a more reflexive demand from the spectator.

In other words, the scene previous to George’s death (his escape to the neighbour’s home, to the anti-climax moment where he points the gun at the antagonist and the surprise when it doesn’t fire) can be considered -in Metzian terms- as a the “pleasurable” type of scene, in the sense that it pays off every single expectation from the audience, considering that Funny Games was sold in the first place as a thriller and the audience has completely bought that idea. The real violence -the murder of the child- happens off-screen, and we only have the auditive information to understand what has just happened. The next scene, however, a static wide shot of the living room where we see the consequences of what we just heard, clearly discomforts the audience.

 

Long static shot in Funny games (1997). The audience is forced to reflect on the consequences of the violence.

Long static shot in Funny games (1997). The audience is forced to reflect on the consequences of the violence.

All of the films presented in this research, also share the ability to demand the active participation from the viewer, and in some cases (such as in A Clockwork Orange and Funny Games) they explicitly point out the existence of the spectator within the film.

We are forced to look at some scenes becoming aware of the elements of fiction and our position as external spectators: Alex de Large breaking the forth wall and looking straight at us in the first seconds of the film, the way he addresses the audience in first person, the theatrical sets and sometimes even the camera positions –where we are forced to look at the scene as if we were an audience sitting on a theatre– even the synthetized sounds of the composer Wendy Carlos applied to the soundtrack, are determinant choices to establish in a very clear way the position of the audience and the fact that we should perceive it as a film. A resonance of this idea, where the spectator is aware of his position and compromise to the film, is also present in Haneke’s Funny Games, as we may see later on.