Attenberg (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Athina Rachel Tsangari

By Roderick Heath

Last year’s Dogtooth, directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, snatched a lot of fresh attention for current Greek cinema with its outré portrayal of a twisted, hermetic family life redolent of political, cultural, and psychosexual repression and perversion. Attenberg, which debuted at 2010’s Venice Film Festival but which is only just now being released internationally, is very much a companion piece to Dogtooth, written and directed as it is by that film’s producer, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and featuring Lanthimos in its cast. Less showy and grotesque than Dogtooth, Attenberg might actually strike deeper and truer in its analytical study of boredom, behaviour, and limited horizons.

Attenberg genuflects coolly on the state of contemporary Greece, now the famous swamp of the European Union’s economic ideals, but its observations and encompassed concerns are genuinely universal; in fact, I’ve seen few films that seem to nail the unsettling and shiftless mood of some corners of the current age better. Everyone knows the generational mythos of the Baby Boomers: people who chafed at ossified and neurotic parents, trying to reclaim present and future from programmatic social structures and Atomic Age anxiety. Generation X got fed up with that and offered its own now-tired mythos, that of a collective of betrayed latchkey kids. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s feature debut film, seems to be attempting to describe a common, specifically modern malady for Gen Y, Millennials, whatever you want to call them. However, in the character of its alienated, developmentally stalled heroine Marina (Ariane Labed), its often droll antistrophes of detached, clinical Euro-realism, and flourishes of play seem more akin to the movies of some of the French New Wave’s more overt dreamers, like Jacques Rivette and Jacques Demy, and the antic femininity of Vera Chitilova’s Daisies (1966).

The title is spawned by the mispronunciation of “Attenborough”, as in Sir David, the iconic wildlife documentary presenter (and brother of Richard), by Marina’s BFF Bella (Evangelia Randou). Marina watches Attenborough’s work obsessively, and she and Bella, as well as Marina’s architect father (Vangelis Mourikis), love aping the behaviour of animals. Marina and Bella have one of those symbiotic relationships a lot of young women have, to the extent that they are often glimpsed moving along together in tightly choreographed dance moves that seem to mix together the stonefaced stiltedness of the Madison in Bande à Part (1964) with the sisterly peregrinations in Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1964), but robbed of all apparent joie de vivre. They wander the streets singing along to Francoise Hardy, hissing and clawing in rhythmic gyrations, or imitating urinating animals.

But strains are also showing in this symbiosis. Bella, who works in a local restaurant, has become quite sexually experienced, whereas Marina has never been interested in sex, or so she says. The film commences with an epic, increasingly funny girl-on-girl snog as Bella tries to teach Marina how to kiss, leading to several minutes of absurd tongue wrestling. Marina complains, “I’ve never had something wriggling in my mouth—it’s disgusting!” but still insists Bella “get on in there!” Bella recounts her dreams, which are filled with trees growing manifold varieties of penislike fruit. Marina later ponders her sexual identity, admitting to admiring aspects of the female form more, checking out other female bodies during a sojourn to the changing rooms of the local pool—she’d dream about tit trees—but not desiring them, and staring instead with glum curiosity at her form. She’s alarmed by the thought of a “piston” jackhammering away between her thighs, and in her conversations with her serenely unflappable, black-humoured father (Vangelis Mourikis), admits she has often liked to picture him naked but without a penis.

Things are changing for the trio who trio live in a bleak and lifeless seaside town built to house workers for a nearby mine and factory that burns and billows day and night with glowering import. Marina’s father was one of the architects of this glorified dormitory, but now detests it, describing it as a place where they seemed more interested in how it would look as ruins than as a place to actually live. It’s Greece, but you’d be hard-pressed to see anything Greek about this strange, denuded, depopulated locale. Marina and Bella’s relationship is turning distinctly icy, even as they still rely on each other to survive emotionally and imaginatively, as the disparity between their tastes in sex and life become more defined. The easy life father and daughter had becomes newly charged when Bella joins them and gives the father a massage.

The father is now undergoing treatment for a cancer that proves terminal, and thus he is weighing up his legacy, that of Greece, and perhaps indeed, the previous century’s project. Once a thorough-going idealist, he sees a country that tried to skip directly from agrarian backwardness to modern postindustrialism without going through the evolutionary stages in between, with its agonies of repression and cultural upheaval neatly squared away, leaving a sterile and alien state that can’t support itself. Father announces that he’s boycotting the twentieth century, and regrets leaving this world to Marina. He also remonstrates himself for considering Marina too much of a pal, as now, Marina finally has to take the risk of surrendering herself to erotic violation, which means no longer being able to comment on life as if she’s Attenborough watching the animal kingdom.

Tsangari returns several times to a piece from Attenborough’s breathtaking encounter with the mountain gorillas of Kenya during which he had the sensation that there was only the finest line separating the species—a point where the ability to comment, to objectivise, breaks down in the implacable so nearly human stare of the animals. The notion of such charged first contact flows amusingly into the scenes in which Marina chooses a potential mate for herself, the darkly handsome, yet fundamentally affable Spyros (Lanthimos), to whom she first tries to signal her interest by competing with him furiously at foosball. Spyros, whom Marina occasionally drives to and from work at the factory, proves to be a good choice. He understandingly, if not entirely without frustration, allows Marina to ease herself into sexual experience, feeling out his body and chattering away in her observational style, and tries out on him the same sort of the demonstrative quirks she’s used to sharing: she flexes out her shoulder blades like curtailed wings, wondering at the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of one’s own body. Later she makes friends with Spyros’ penis by lying with her face on it and adjusting her physical expectations of what it’s like. All of Marina’s efforts are nonetheless infused with the blear melancholia of a daughter waiting for her father to die, slowly detaching herself from what has been a convenient sealing off from the reality of a place and time that offers little cheer. Father, dismayed at the thought of being buried and eaten by worms, wants to be cremated, which is illegal, so he has to be shipped out of Greece for the service. He starts to receive newsletters from the action group trying to get the law changed (“Best to kept abreast of such things where I’m going.”). In one of the film’s most simultaneously heartbreaking and droll scenes, Marina meets with an agent of the company he has contracted with to cremate him; the agent preciously dissuades her from sending her father to neighbouring Bulgaria: though the cheapest option, it means being cremated alongside a lot of ex-Communist atheists. Even in death, there is no escape from petty parochialisms.

Tsangari, who actually got her masters in fine arts degree in Texas, seems well placed to make a movie about the fascinating contemporary phenomenon of widespread, virtual world citizenship. Thanks to mass culture and the internet, we are all absorbing pop culture from around the globe and able to use those things to define ourselves, and yet we are still contained by immediate surroundings that cannot be transcended, only given up to or abandoned. Marina and Bella, blithely imitating the ubiquitous fascination with lesbian kisses, watching British nature documentaries, and strolling through town singing morose French chansons as if participating in their homemade remake of a favourite ’50s teen movie, remake their sterile world out of such shreds and patches. The fragmented structure of the film, full of these weird and momentarily delightful switchbacks of tone and vision, is given sense by this attempt to say something, free of cheesy agitprop against globalisation and commercialism, whilst still engaging with the borderless world.

In such a context, Marina tries to rebuild her sense of self in a crisis of identity by asking some coldly intimate questions: “Is it a taboo?” she questions seriously her peerlessly honest father when she starts discussing his genitalia. Later she admits to being disappointed in him when he admits to having had sex since her mother died, as if their life was a serene music of the intellect and spheres. The joke that Attenberg mimics the Attenborough docos in its study of human life is most apparent in these scenes, as Marina acts as if certain elements of humanity are completely foreign to her and have to be restated and given new substance in order to survive. This is only part of the film’s texture, however, though it has been mistaken for the be-all of the film by some reviewers. Tsangari’s method is subtler, critiquing the disparity between Marina’s capacity to study and live at the same time. “You didn’t raise me that way,” she retorts to her father at one point when he says he wishes she could find a romantic partner, and he agrees.

Attenberg is actually, most fundamentally a story about grief as experienced before, rather than after, the death of a loved one. Marina’s father and his intellectual plight call to mind Ari’s father in Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), living remnant and burnt-out torchbearer for multiple forms of given faith of the progressive left, hoping that industrial development, globalisation, and modernisation could heal all wounds. It gets us out of what James Joyce called history—“the nightmare from which I am trying to awake”—only to fall foul to an alienation from the definition of the self from that an awareness of history provides. Meanwhile Marina falls prey to such totems as her father’s shirt, which she has washed and hangs on the line, only to bury her face in it and hide within its cloth. Marina begs Bella to have sex with her father, calling it a favour she’ll pay back at some time. Bella agrees, leading to a scene in which the two young women, stony and soldierly in their bearing, converge on the hospital and Bella disappears into the father’s rooms to give the dying man his last taste of carnal delight. Labed’s performance, without breaking the mould of deadpan cool, constantly deepens and achieves a cabalistic intensity as the film winds toward its inevitable climax, most especially in the finite twinges of grief that inflect her otherwise calm demeanour with the funeral service rep, and as Marina has to deal with the petty details and cold bureaucracy of the hospital staff after her father has died.

Most strange and almost hallucinatory, whilst on the midnight death watch in her father’s hospital room, Marina turns on a radio and begins a stuttering, pathetic, yet almost incantatory dance. This echoes the mad dance by Aggeliki Papoulia in Dogtooth, but with an inverted meaning: whereas that daughter’s dance was an act of self-definition patching together tropes from movies seen on TV and frantic desperation, Labed’s dance here is a kind of rite, repeating the song’s lyrics “this is a song about life” in a funerary gyration for her father, right on the edge of oblivion, and herself, on the edge of having to take command and find a way out of the town that seems so much like a living tomb. Suddenly, in her own way, Marina seems a classical Greek heroine, a modern-day Antigone trying to do right by her father and herself. Labed’s performance is, like the film, a quietly gripping and oddball coup, if, cumulatively, also an achingly sad one. The last stages of Attenberg, as Marina watches the weird process of her father’s coffin being packed for shipping, and then as she and Bella drop his ashes into the harbour, are suitably forlorn and quietly confirm the father’s expectation of leaving behind cities of industry in which the people who work in them wander in dolorous severance from whatever gave shape to their existence. Tsangari offers a cheerless industrial landscape after the girls have driven off, leaving behind rain and mud and lumbering trucks. Francoise Hardy again sings piningly and then fades into silence as we, like Marina, ponder where the new century is taking us.

  • Colin spoke:
    22nd/09/2011 to 1:52 pm

    Love the write-up, Roderick, but really didn’t like the film. I just couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that I’d seen it before last year when it was called Dogtooth. I was prepared to go along with the ‘story’ then, but not again.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/09/2011 to 11:36 pm

    Well, thanks for the comment Colin, although we’ll have to remain at odds on the movie. Attenberg is anything but a retread.

  • Colin spoke:
    23rd/09/2011 to 6:07 pm

    No, not the story, but the telling of it. I suppose this is a new genre forming in front of our eyes, but I’m not terribly keen on it.

  • Peter spoke:
    23rd/11/2011 to 4:23 pm

    First rate analysis. Well done. Would you not agree that the Dogtooth/Attenberg relationship is not dissimilar to Ulrich Seidl’s fiction films Dog Days and Import/Export, in that the first are dark, snarky and cynical in their social observations whilst the latter possess a more humanitarian disposition while wisely refraining from overt sentimentality? Just a thought…

  • Rod spoke:
    23rd/11/2011 to 6:47 pm

    Sadly Peter I haven’t seen Import/Export, but I do know what you mean about Dog Days so I can sense your more general inference. So thanks for that thought.

  • Adam spoke:
    21st/05/2012 to 9:53 am

    Responded to parts of this film as if it were a horror movie; the movements of the characters through this drab world seem aimless at first, only to be gradually recast as a desperate flight from an insidious sucking Something. No monster or creeper here, just a sense of all meaning draining out of the world. When Marina conflates her own body with that of a bird’s or a gorilla she surrenders what little sense of self she has.

    There’s a bleak sort of liberation in that.

    Acutely aware that she could be anything in the ‘borderless world’ you describe, she’s paralysed, she is without destiny, she is nothing, in fact. Her midnight dance is almost unbearable to watch; she struggles under the oppression of her own feelings, looking to lose herself in a lyric as she has she has done in the mating dances of the animal kingdom.

    Tsangari’s ability to create empathy for someone who’s essentially in deep cover, hiding from herself, is quite extraordinary. For all the tenderness engendered by the film however, my main feeling coming away from it was one of horror for the generation to come after Bella and Marina’s. As the world becomes more vague and indifferent – drained dry – such a generation might well be incapable of discerning shapes and colours from one another, lost in their own heads. Their movements would be a cruder version of the dances seen here, ritualised, mechanistic and futile.

    I should thank you for this write-up though. It brings Marina’s questing, inquisitive instincts to the fore. Her search for balance between feeling and reason will continue; this is only one stage of it, and something may yet be salvaged.

    So yeah, thanks for the lift. :)

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