Wednesday, July 17, 2013

FI: Attenberg

Greece, 2011
Written and Directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari

The first thing that strikes me about Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg is its similarity in theme and tone to fellow Greek Giorgos Lanthimos's films Dogtooth and Alps. Of course, the films do share some DNA: Writer/director Tsangari worked as a producer on Lanthimos's movies; he, in turn, plays a character in Attenberg, and both Alps and Attenberg star Ariane Labed. The three films share a focus on loners, people who are isolated from society either by force or by choice, and who, as a result, have only a childlike understanding of relationships, sexuality, and death. But while Lanthimos punctuates his films with shocking acts of violence, here this isolation is depicted in alternately comical and sad ways, shot with cool but beautiful detachment.

In Attenberg, twenty-three year-old Marina (Labed) keeps largely to herself. She spends her time having quirky, philosophical discussions with her terminally-ill father Spyros (the endearing Vangelis Mourlkis) or getting a crude sexual education from her worldly friend Bella (Evangelia Randou). Marina speaks in a blunt, often-affectless monotone, and only seems to enjoy listening to Suicide and watching nature documentaries by David Attenborough—or "Attenberg," as she pronounces the name. Her father and Bella each readily join her in aping various animal sounds and movements, and these imitative sequences, verging on dances or mating rituals, frequently stop the film in its tracks. The stars' willingness to physically go for it—both in these childish-yet-naively-sexual animal impressions, and in some completely de-eroticized sex scenes—shows a great trust in their director's vision, a trust I'm not entirely sure is well-founded. While their performances are all excellent, the film itself is more than a little slippery.

It's hard to say for sure what exactly Tsangari is going for, here. Dialogue hints at parallels between Greece's halting modernization and Marina's arrested development. There are suggestions that her isolation is a reality-escaping mechanism she learned from her father, perhaps stemming from her mother's implied but never-explicitly-stated death. Marina's arc is a sort of coming-of-age story, as she tries to make peace with her father's imminent death and learn social and survival skills for solo life, but the film isn't interested in fitting that arc to our standard filmic narrative for such things. Its quirkiness can be hard to stomach, though I do feel there's a narrative justification for most of it, even if I can't put my finger on exactly what that justification is. I suppose it's normal to feel conflicted and slightly cold towards a film about awkward people who bury their own emotions in ritual dances and word games, but it has grown on me. Your own enjoyment will depend on how much quirk you're willing to forgive in the service of the handful of genuinely-affecting moments Attenberg conjures up along the way.

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