In Attenberg, the producer of 2009’s Dogtooth presents another orally fixated exploration of the world, from the perspective of an isolated young woman.
Director Athina Rachel Tsangari has crafted a curious and detailed portrait of four people living in a Greek coastal town, built around an industrial plant. The film focuses on Marina (Ariane Labed) daughter of Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), an architect dying of cancer. The film’s title comes from Marina’s passion for watching David Attenborough documentaries with her father, something that has lead to her habit of mimicking the animals in the programs (Attenberg being a mispronunciation of the name by Marina’s friend Bella). In fact, it could be said that some of the most honest and poignant communication in the film derives from the more animal-like exchanges between characters. Attenberg begins with Bella (Evangelia Randou) teaching her repressed counterpart to French kiss. Marina’s literal distaste for what she considers to be a repulsive act eventually overcomes her impulse to learn and the two women resort to ape-like displays of aggression in the grass. This scene, when considered in relation to the film as a whole, is actually the perfect introduction to the central female relationship – intimate, inquisitive, partially dependent and ultimately tinged with an instinctive jealousy.
I really enjoyed Attenberg. Initially I couldn’t verbalise why, but the more I think about it, the richer it gets, as the characters interactions with each other and their environment are actually beautifully composed gestural encounters, (Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis also worked on Dogtooth). It is telling that the themes of the film are the grandest; Marina comes to terms with adult relationships and responsibilities via her experiences of sex and death. Tsangari doesn’t explain why Marina has such a limited experience of life, other than in scenes between father and daughter in which Marina expresses her frustration at her Dad’s desire for her to get out of her comfort zone, despite him raising her in opposition to this. At one point she describes herself as asexual, and declares that she wished her Dad didn’t have genitals.
It is in the portrayal of the sheltered central character that Attenbergs similarity with Dogtooth is revealed. In both films the absurdity of human behaviour in the 'adult' world, is exposed by young people seeing it for the first time. When Marina is eventually attracted to a man, (an engineer, played by Giorgos Lanthimos, director of Dogtooth) their forays into lovemaking are made comically endearing by her instinct to narrate their actions as though they were animals in an Attenborough documentary. The oral fixation is shown in both base actions – spitting, and in word play as Spyros and Marina volley rhyming words back and forth eventually devolving into grunts and growls. This repetition of play and games is also present in the interspersed scenes of Marina and Bella marching along a neglected strip between houses, in a beguiling tribute to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. At first these sequences can seem too contrived, but on second thought are no less ridiculous than the other human rituals on display. Notable in this category is the detailed process necessary to allow Spyros to be cremated after his inevitable demise. In a scene weighted with pathos, we see the funeral director explaining the choices for the casket and the urn, and the irony of Marina’s insistence on a non-synthetic coffin lining for her allergic father.
Attenberg isn’t simply a study of human behaviour, however, nor is it entirely similar to Dogtooth; Tsangari having created a funny, beautiful and sad film that also reflects on the ‘failed revolution’ in Greece, represented by the damaged and ruined buildings, and lamented by Spyros who (at least in the film) designed them. Ariane Labeds’ performance is both brave and tender, and it won her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival. It is delights such as this and an almost music video style karaoke section with Bella and Marina that means the film will stay with you a lot longer than any mainstream coming-of-age tale.