Before beginning college life, I was educated from home. These dark days of social separation were typified by the reading of many books, playing of lot of video games and school, lots of school. As shocking as it may be, at times being homeschooled did involve social interaction, including, but not limited to, talking, communal sports, field trips and the dreaded traditional classes taught by one adult to a group of young, irreverent kids.
As I grew older it became obvious that being homeschooled was a bit unusual, especially gauging the reactions I received from adults and kids my own age who asked me where I went to school. Apparently, we were supposed to be ignorant, antisocial and underdeveloped religious nuts. If only those people knew I thought they were supposed to be the evil devils corrupted by television, media and secularism.
This probably explains why the first movie I ever loved enough to declare my favorite was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. This also explains why I found the Oscar nominated foreign film Dogtooth so traumatizing. And thinking about both these films as they relate to a surprisingly similar notion, I think back to those books of philosophy I read through my high-school years as a homeschooler.
John Locke and his theory of tabula rasa states that people, by their nature, are blank slates. They start off neither good nor ill, not instilled with any preconceived social behaviors. Therefore, it is only through external influences that individuals are instilled with bad behavioral tendencies. So why not simply cut off individuals from all the evil of society and raise them up in the best possible way?
This is the logic behind the two isolated societies of both The Village and Dogtooth. Both focus on young adults who have spent their entire lives fostered by their elders in a society separated from the outside world, separate from the evils that would instill in them the bad tendencies of the world. The only problem is that evil gets in anyway.
In The Village, a series of events lead to one member of the community murdering another member in a jealous rage. The nature of the murder is a bit complicated because the killer is troubled and mentally undeveloped. While this might seem to initially indicate some abnormal psychosis responsible for the murder, they ignore a couple of things.
First, this character is aligned with being childish and naïve. In many ways, his character represents an infantile mind in an adult body, hardly developed beyond a basic communication. Second, his crime is a crime of passion. Here, human whims and emotions get the better of him. The film even goes to pains to show he’s clearly aware of what he’s doing and that it’s premeditated.
The audience discovers that the elders of the Amish-like community all have some dark trauma from their past that has convinced them to leave the world behind behind, foster a loving, peaceful community away from what they perceive as the corruption and crime of modern society.
For the family of Dogtooth, the manifestation of evil is a rash of episodes that involve the three children violently acting out against each other. Here, the intent of the parents is not clear. While they separate their kids from all knowledge of the outside world, even perverting their sense of vocabulary, it lacks any specific end. When their son asks what a “pussy” is, his mother makes up an answer, but she isn’t actually protecting him from exposure to sexuality.
If anything, the parents have instilled their kids with the very traits that would seem to be what such an isolated family would want to avoid. The son is encouraged to be sexually active, his father even hires a woman to have sex with him. And both parents instill an ultracompetitive merit based reward system which encourages the children to be violent towards one another.
They even instill in their kids a hatred of cats, so much so that when a cat wanders into the back yard, the son kills it without hesitation. Later, one of the girls beats up on her brother with a hammer and then claims it was a cat which snuck into the room. Their parents haven’t even taught their kids violence, it’s something that they often use against each other both in jest and in malice.
The Village underlines the ultimate failure of instilling perfect behavior in a child. The undesirable is there, ever present in the community even as they try to repress it. The command to remove all presence of red, “the bad color,” symbolizes both the attempts to repress passion and violence. By the end of the film, these traits are displayed as innate to the human condition and manifest themselves in the community.
For Dogtooth, the failure isn’t so much an end point as the point of initiation. Here, the very motive of such a community necessitates negative behavior. In order to instill the desired behavior, it must be taken to the extreme of a violent, competitive drive. Likewise, the need to procreate leads to incest. For all the audience knows, given better parameters of the community, these kids could end up being well adjusted in Dogtooth.
This is ultimately where the two films diverge. Dogtooth ends up with the kids as a product of a system stripped of any meaning, some sort of cruel, unexplained social experiment. In The Village the intentions are pure, but in the end, they can’t elicit the desired result. Both are condemnations of a society which seeks to remove itself from the world and yet only one seems to have a substantial reason for its criticism.
As provoking as Dogtooth is, it’s a film that ultimately lacks true meaning. It’s seeped in ambiguity and absurdity in the hopes that audiences for fear of looking ignorant and the desire to be very esoteric will call it deep and meaningful when it’s a film that is obtuse for the sake of being obtuse. Nothing actually meaningful is conveyed. Homeschoolers are weird (I was one) but heck this is such an extreme and bizarre example that the likelihood if it having any correlation to reality is slim to none.
Only The Village can give a legitimate reason why disengaging from society is futile. Locke’s tabula rasa is unfounded because no matter how much a society tries to avoid and repress evil traits, they will be present. How to actually deal with evil is never addressed, but to deny it, to say the impulses don’t exist, is folly.