You don’t have to be an expert, let alone a film critic, to have your thoughts swing over to the maniacal, mesmeric Dogtooth, when watching Athina Rachel Tsangari’s 2010 film, Attenberg. The comparisons between some of the themes in the Greek films are relatively obvious. Also, given Dogtooth director, Yorgos Lanthimos, part produced Tsangari’s film (as she did his), he also plays a small part in Attenberg. But, these are very different movies in their own right.
An often oddball tale of isolation and alienation, but delivered with such quirky engagement, Attenberg will baffle but not bore. Ariane Labed takes the bull by the horns in the lead role, as Marina, who appears to have had a form of secluded upbringing. Now in her twenties, Marina has hardly kissed a boy, and has little social skills, or a knowledge of some of life’s little imperfections. Could be any of us, perhaps.
Her sheltering, though, has not really dampened her spirit, nor caused any apparent crumbling of intelligence or wits. There is also nothing to suggest that her father (Vangelis Mourikis), sadly in a terminally ill condition, has inflicted any kind of harm to Marina. In fact, their relationship is extremely healthy. They casually discuss funeral arrangements, play rhyme games, and literally monkey about. Inspired by their addiction to watching the documentaries of David Attenborough on the television.
The mispronunciation of Attenborough’s name by Marina’s best friend Bella (Evangelia Randou), is where the title comes from. Their friendship is also solid, but also on the unorthodox side. Marina is especially blunt towards Bella, borderline insulting her at one point while asking for a peculiar favor. Bella is promiscuous by reputation, and can be equally droll and condescending. The opening scene, as they enter the frame from either side, has Bella attempting to teach Marina how to kiss with tongues. It’s an awkward, strange sequence, but demonstrates what friends do for each other.
Marina’s growing exploration of the outside world expands to having banal sex, and much of her developing the sense of her own body. The exposure of her protruding shoulder blades is one such odd moment, but serves for Marina to perform a kind of party trick for Bella. There are also sporadic little scenes of Marina and Bella, arm in arm, performing slpastick dancing, almost synchronized kicking or flailing, play-fighting – including raspberry-blowing.
The father-daughter relations offers a different dynamic, not just of the weirdness, but the emotional value. The unusual behavior soon becomes the norm, as you watch, and somehow glimmers of poignancy (like when Marina touches her father’s nose in hospital) seem moving, although fleetingly, in a way we are not accustomed to. Or when Marina has to stop pushing her father in his wheelchair in the hospital corridor, to just take a moment.
Marina’s father also represents the kind of industrial side of Greece, with his former occupation, with the recent financial decline of the country. As the father and daughter share a scooter through an old commercial site, the vacant works reflects the country’s crisis to an extent – though the glorious mountains that devour the background is still a wonderfully familiar Greek landscape.
As there is a general distance from society within Tsangari’s narrative, intentional I might add. It is often reminiscent of the nature documentaries that Marina and her father could not get enough of. There’s a casual, episodic structure to Attenberg, some might call it a lack of plot, but it is the open, scattered stepping stones of the movie that make it so magnetic. And wonderfully shot too, Thimios Bakatakis captures the aforementioned scenery, as well as magnifying the curves and bumps of the characters and the current lives they lead.
Attenberg is a fascinating, original motion picture, inflicting us with the inner workings of the minds and talents of the Greek cinematic wave of recent years. Tsangari and company are flying the flag, and boosting the trend, of the whimsical, the uncomfortable, but also the complexity, the mundane. And driving forth with a fresh boat of film entertainment. Marina’s participation in the improvised theater, of sorts, in Attenberg, shapes a kind of self-discovery symbolic of Greece, as a nation, but also as an innovative journey of filmmaking.