Meshes: Teen Monsters in Training: “Let the Right One In” and “Dogtooth”

Part of Meshes, a series of image essays that finds surprising visual links between films.

Peter Pan made no bones about it: “I want always to be a boy, and have fun.”  But the moral of his story (and many others) warns that childhood is but a way station to adulthood, a finite period that finalizes morality, taste, and perspective. Centuries of narrative storytelling have taught us that fighting against this fact is futile, and when childhood development is protracted, manipulated, or deformed, the innocent can turn into monsters.

Tomas Alfredson’s chilly Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (2008) and Yorgos Lanthimos’ sunny dark comedy Dogtooth (2009) each considers forcibly extended childhoods and their disastrous effects. Much like his new spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Alfredson paints Let the Right One In with frigid blues, blacks, and grays, shooting mostly at night and using dark shadows to divide the slightest hints of color. Still, the violent tale of bullied 11-year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and his budding friendship with Eli (Lina Leandersson), a forever-young vampire who lives next door, is shrouded in compassion and imbued with a singular sense of human connection. Despite being surrounded by ice and sleet, the outcast and bloodsucker find warmth together, while all of the “normal” kids go on living like cold-blooded beasts.

Dogtooth is a solarium by comparison, nearly every shot shrouded in the bright sunlight of a rural compound inhabited by a nameless wealthy Greek family. Father (Christos Stergioglou) and Mother (Michele Valley) hold sway over their three grown children (Son, Younger Daughter, Older Daughter) inside what equates to a carefully constructed fishbowl of household mythology. Completely sequestered from the outside world, the family has their own rules/hierarchies/ideologies, all defined by a cycling sense of confusion, aggression, and competition. Despite the film’s sun-drenched look, it doesn’t get much darker than Dogtooth, proving that weather in both films is often misleading.

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1. Reflections of Split Identities

Let the Right One In opens with Oskar assuming the position of a bully in his own bedroom, acting out the same degrading threats that he hears on a daily basis. Afterward, leaning up against his bedroom window in the shot above, there’s an unspoken admittance to the futility of his uncomfortable role-playing. While his hand remains the only physical body part in the frame, what’s left is a blurred reflection, a ghost image of conflicting identities: fabricated aggressor and weathered youth.

Ambiguity dominates much of Dogtooth, but especially in the opening medium shots of all three children seemingly lost in thought (or confusion). Here, Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) is positioned up against a bathroom mirror, pressed against the glass. Her reflection suggests a separate identities, but unlike the still of Oskar, she faces away from the surface unaware of her own other self. Considering the rigorous stranglehold Father has over the entire family, this image of alienation from oneself is a fitting introduction to her grown-up adolescence.

2. Isolation in Long Shot

Alfredson expresses his character’s emotional state through meticulous composition. In this striking long shot, one of many in Let the Right One In where action unfolds in one take, Oskar’s small isolated figure faces Eli’s bedroom and away from the camera. The blanket of white provides a perimeter to the brown apartment building, its brick facade domineering the frame like a castle wall. Firmly rooted, Oskar appears stuck between going forward or backward, his feet sinking into the thick snow.

Lanthimos relies on long master shots less frequently than Alfredson, but the above image of Son (Hristos Passalis) staring aimlessly at the lush hedges conveys Dogtooth’s absurdist treatment of protracted adolescence. Dressed in all white, Son stands out against the striking triple-tier of green, his feet disappearing into shadow. Like Oskar, he’s frozen by an internal desire to push beyond the mental borders his parents have created.3. Beheaded Bodies

Partially seen bodies are elemental to Let the Right One In’s sense of alienation, and this early image of two children fighting is essential to that thesis. The abstract framing conveys primitive, dehumanized brutality, showing two faceless ruffians locked in combat, like a grade school version of American Gladiator.

Lanthimos crops bodies during many extended sequences, and here he omits both the head and feet of Older Daughter and Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a woman Father brings in to sexually satisfy Son. As a result, the viewer must delineate character motivation entirely from spoken dialogue. It shows how characters in Dogtooth are incomplete, underdeveloped man-children, the framing consistently suggesting an abnormal, suffocating reality.4. Bloodied Faces

In this shot, Eli begins to bleed profusely when Oskar challenges her to enter his home without an invitation. Not only does the harrowing scene convince Oskar of Eli’s vampire affliction, it paints an image of her bloodied and aged soul yearning for companionship (and escape). Alfredson confirms this idea by flashing to an older woman’s face before returning to that of the child.

Not an ounce of romanticism can be found in Dogtooth’s use of the bloodied face. To justify the sudden appearance of a cat in their yard, Father cuts his clothing and smears fake blood all over his body, villainizing the feline through visual shock and awe. This event becomes an ideological tipping point for Older Daughter, as she begins to quietly question the dogma Father has firmly ingrained in her subconscious.5. Destruction of Youth

When Eli decimates the three bullies drowning Oskar in the pool, Alfredson once again returns to the long shot, and silence and stillness allow the pockets of color to resonate. The destruction of youth, all mangled bodies and pools of blood, is perfectly counterbalanced by the calmness of the frame.

Father has prophesized that the only way his children can leave the compound is if their special “dogtooth” falls out. In this sequence, Oldest Daughter takes him at his word, shattering her jaw with a dumbbell and splattering the mirror with blood. It’s a symbolic destruction of her youth, represented by that toothless grin, but the instinctual act is far more important than the twisted reasoning behind it.6. Evolution?

The endings of both films share one question: Will these abnormal experiences of adolescence continue or evolve? As Oskar taps quietly on the cardboard box housing the dormant Eli, communicating through the Morse code they perfected together, this question remains unanswered. Still, the poetry and grace of the above shot provides a clue to Alfredson’s true intent: Companionship and escape are enough to signify a shared evolution, a step forward.

The motif of containment and transportation continues in the final shot of Dogtooth, in which Older Sister escapes the compound by hiding in the trunk of Father’s car. Unlike Let the Right One In, there’s no tender reference to the woman within the confined compartment, no excitement over her achieved freedom. Instead, we watch as one lifeless vehicle carries a potential monster into the world beyond, an event that could expand Father’s warped doctrine instead of erasing it from memory. Cats beware.

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