A. A. Collins, Cinedelphia’s Portland-based correspondent, reports from the 2012 Portland International Film Festival.
It’s not easy being Greek. Formerly the center of the civilized world, Greece is now the poster child for the global financial crisis and its dire economic situation has become as synonymous with the country as democracy or philosophy had been in the past. This rundown and depressed Greece serves as the backdrop for Athina Rachel Tsangari’s weirdly compelling second feature Attenberg.
Along with 2010’s disturbing dark comedy Dogtooth, which Tsangari co-produced, Attenberg seems to be part of a small Greek cinematic revival. Dogtooth’s director, Giorgio Lanthimos, returns the favor serving as producer and actor in Attenberg. Similarities abound between the two films, from their washed-up cinematography to the stunted development and awkward mannerism of their protagonists. But Whereas Dogtooth is a shocking satire with nary a sentimental note and complete disconnect from reality, Attenberg is a much gentler film, featuring an emotionally satisfying character arc without betraying an ounce of its idiosyncratic weirdness.
The film tells the coming of age story of Marina (Ariene Labed), 23 and beautiful, but extremely awkward and reserved. Marina’s cold, distant demeanor reflects the landscape that surrounds her. Identical, dull white houses spread over the discolored rocky Mediterranean soil as modern industrial structures take over the hills, covering over the remnants of the old Hellenistic architecture that had remained unchallenged for millennia. Marina inhabits a society awkwardly making the transition from a farming economy to a modern one, in the process whitewashing over its own cultural identity. Tsangari paints a bleak, dream-like picture of her native country. Attenberg’s Greece finds its streets empty of people, a sandbox in which Marina can indulge her playful, wacky fantasies.
Marina’s cancer-stricken architect father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), and her best friend Bellad (Evangelia Randau) are the only two people she has interacted with at the film’s start. She has a part time job driving civil engineers around a big construction project but keeps her conversations with them to monosyllabic responses and grunts. Her dead mother is mentioned and hints are given that she has never quite gotten over her death, perhaps explaining her hesitance to become an adult woman. Spyros and Bella indulge and accept her skewed view of the world as a necessary coping mechanism.
In between chemotherapy sessions, Marina and Spyros have frank and strange conversations ranging from sex to philosophy to death. She fires awkward bursts of seemingly inappropriate questions and pronouncements as he lovingly and honestly answers with a patience that shows he has grown accustomed to such exchanges. At home, they jump up and down, howling and gesticulating like the wild gorillas they obsessively watch on TV.
The way Marina and Bella interact is even stranger. Though Marina is clearly the alpha-friend, her personality often overwhelming her friend’s, Bella is the worldlier of the two. The film opens with Bella showing Marina how to kiss. The image makes for a very funny moment as Bella’s experienced tongue wrestles with her friend’s retreating, disgusted counterpart. Marina finds sex disgusting and has so far avoided it. This child-like attitude is milked for some awkward laughs (the only kind this movie has) but it is also shown as a crippling personality disorder in the film. Labed’s minimalistic portrayal of Marina, consisting of stoic posturing with smart, probing eyes peering out of her stone face does wonders to show some of the hidden emotions beneath the cold exterior. Complexity lurks beneath the comical, unsettling façade –her face shows both defiant confidence and terrified despair.
In order to counteract this terror, Marina latches on to a series of random obsessions that further contribute to her isolation. Chief among these are the films of British naturist Sir David Attenborough –Bella’s mispronunciation of his name is where the film gets its title— from which Marina draws a great deal of her affectations and ideas. It is through the lens of a nature film that Marina views her surroundings: the world is filled with subjects to be analyzed and kept at bay via scientific distance. To her the human experience is as alien and fascinating as the animal is kingdom is to Sir David. She imitates human emotions and expressions in the same way she acts out the mating and territorial rituals of apes and birds.
Some scenes demonstrate this form of emotional pantomime in a more surreal, self-conscious manner. In one, Marina and Bella memorize the French lyrics to Françoise Hardy’s “Touts les Garçons et les Filles”. They then proceed to recreate the iconic music video, imitating Hardy’s melancholic expression as they stroll while singing about loneliness. But this is all performance: they act out the idea of loneliness instead of actually experiencing the emotion.
A series of recurring vignettes appear throughout the film that further underscore Marina’s peculiar form of detachment. Dressed in polka dot dresses, she and Bella perform their own version of Monty Python’s “silly walks” bit, intuitively matching each other’s moves they take the sketch’s original conceit to bizarre extremes, whimsy accompanied by the despair of their vacant stares.
These surreal flourishes can be a bit grating and distracting and would be pointless if Tsangari had put them there for their own sake. But she has a sure hand and knows exactly what she is driving at. These asides are character driven and are visually interesting ways to build Marina’s psyche without wasting precious running time with exposition. They ask patience of the viewer but ultimately this is rewarded with a richer experience.
He father’s impeding death wakes Marina from her emotional coma. When an engineer (Lathimos) at work begins to make awkward overtures, Marina uses this as an opportunity to break out of her shell. She approaches sex with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, coming on too strong, talking too much, and doing very little to suppress her disgust. The engineer is patient and understanding and soon they become close.
Their clumsy courtship is helped out by a shared interest, of all things, in seminal punk band Suicide. Like Attenborough, Hardy, and Monty Python, Suicide allows Marina to express herself without really having to. Whether Tsangari intends this as a statement on how pop culture either becomes a surrogate for or a way to deep connections, I leave to you. But these obsessions play a part as both agents for Marina’s alienation and as vehicles through which she can eventually relate to other human beings. Tsangari and Labed portray Marina’s growth throughout the film in an ambiguous manner. A sense of loss (accentuated by her father’s imminent death) accompanies Marina as she finally accepts the inevitability of adulthood.
Tsangari manages a precarious balancing act with Attenberg. Swinging between emotional realism and whimsical Dadaism, she strikes the perfect ratio. Though parts of the film might feel plodding or too affected while first experiencing them, they are never boring and the aggregate effect of each individual scene adds to create a compelling portrait of Marina. This is compounded by Labed’s wonderfully measured performance. This marriage between twee playfulness and darker, more disturbing emotional realism makes for a compulsive and compelling watch.