I’ve had toothache this week. It’s a horrible affliction and one I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer from much in the past. I’ve spent a great deal of time feeling like half my face is ringing in pain. The dentist said I had an infected wisdom tooth and has prescribed several antibiotics.
Teeth are funny things. One can almost forget one has them, until they start hurting, or something gets stuck in them. It was different when young and waiting for them to fall out. Who can forget those thrilling days of wobbly teeth and toothfairies? And older brothers offering to get it out for you by tying a piece of string between the wobbly tooth and the door handle, and then slamming the door. A terrifying offer that always felt more like a threat than anything else.
And then there are those dreams in which teeth suddenly fall out. Horrible dreams. A therapist once told me it was a form of anxiety, of feeling that one was loosing one’s grip on something – not being able to get one’s teeth into it anymore. Freud, of course, said it was to do with masturbation.
But the most haunting tooth-related incident that I’ve experienced recently is the profoundly chilling, disturbing film Dogtooth.
Essentially three children, now in their late teens, have been raised in complete isolation by their parents. They never leave the perimeter of their garden, their television watching is restricted to home videos of themselves, and are told that a ‘motorway’ is a type of wind, an ‘excursion’ a type of flooring, and a ‘telephone’ a salt cellar. When the girls see their mother on an actual telephone, they assume she is talking to herself.
There’s a lot that’s very funny in the film. One of the girls manages to get hold of some videos and we deduce that they’re Rocky, Jaws and Flashdance, when she starts speaking in lines from the films and dances the Flashdance dance. But I don’t think I ever quite laughed. It was partly the weirdness of it, the dehumanising alien-like shock. But moreover it was the brutal violence that was never far out of the frame. When the father finds out that his daughter has been watching these illicit films, for example, he ties the videotapes to his hands with duct tape and clubs his daughter over the head with them, repeatedly.
The most violent image for me was, appropriately enough, one of teeth. The children are told that they will be able to go beyond the garden when their second ‘dogteeth’ fall out. (Dogteeth are the slightly fang-like canine teeth that we all have.) Of course, these teeth won’t fall out. The eldest girl, sensing that there is more to the world than their narrow enclosure, tells her sister, full of hope, she thinks she can feel one of her dogteeth beginning to move. We know this must be imagined but desperately want to believe it.
But the shocking moment comes when the girl subsequently takes a dumbbell into the bathroom and starts hitting her face with it, aiming straight for her dogteeth. Blood goes everywhere – the mirror, the basin, her dress. I have to admit I was peeking through fingers through this bit, so my recollection might not be perfect, but when the camera shows her face, through the blood, she is grinning broadly into the mirror. There are huge bloody gaps where her dogteeth used to be.
It is her brutal determination that is so shocking. The slow, deliberate self-harming that comes from her desperation to be free. It certainly made my nervousness of an older brother yanking out a tooth by slamming a door seem rather feeble.
The teeth-falling-out dream leaves one with the most horrible feeling – it can be strange, alarming to chew for the whole next day. No-one would ever want their teeth to fall out; nobody would ever court that feeling of anxiety, loss, toothlessness. And yet, in this film in which so much is turned on its head and in which violence is part of everyday life, that is exactly what the girl longs for. She longs to lose her teeth, for them to wobble and fall, to loose herself from the trap which holds her. Her desire to lose her teeth – and the freedom that it entails – is so great that it turns physical pain into ecstatic pleasure.
Unfortunately, my infected wisdom tooth is minus the emotional baggage. It remains quite painful, although the antibiotics are definitely helping. If I do have to have it removed, eventually, I shall endeavour to avoid both the dumbbell and door-slamming methods.