21st 09 - 2011 | 6 comments »

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.


13th 06 - 2010 | 10 comments »

The Trojan Women (1971)

Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis

By Roderick Heath

Euripides’ play, first performed in 415 BC, is one of those jewels that only requires the slightest polishing by a good modern translator to come up as perfect. Not so much a tragedy, or even a drama, it is perhaps more an acted lament, and a tallying up of the horrors humankind can heap upon itself and testament to the small, pitying comforts and paltry flashes of meaning that due honour can bring. Euripides was never popular with his Athenian audiences and judges, who only gave him top laurels at the Drama festival a scant few times over a very long writing career largely because he never quite offered the consoling quality of tragedy as being ruled by inexorable fate. In Euripides’ harshly ironic works, humans were quite often so vile that they needed gods to step in and sort the insanity out, hence his famous dramatic invention, the deus ex machina. The Trojan Women doesn’t even have that (though Poseidon and Athena watch with heavy hearts), for his take on the aftermath of the great Homeric founding myth of Greek nationalism evoked brutality, chauvinism, hysteria, and recrimination.

Written when Euripides’ home city of Athens was engaged in the desperate battle for hegemony with Sparta, with the anxieties of that looming defeat writ large in the work, The Trojan Women is nonetheless one of the most thorough and universal approximations of desolation ever written. It’s distinguished by a relentlessly simple structure: the captured women of the fallen city, famous names all—Queen Hecuba, Andromache, Helen, Cassandra—come out one by one to meet their various fates, to be shoved into someone’s bed or kept as trophy of excellence, and, in Andromache’s excruciating case, to have her young son thrown to his death from the city walls so that he’ll never grown up to be as strong as his father Hector. Cassandra, virgin priestess raped by Ajax, goes half out of her mind and still cursed with foresight in perceiving what will be the grotesque end of her brief fate as Agamemnon’s concubine. Hecuba, stripped of everything that was once her source of majestic pride, is claimed by Odysseus, Homer’s robust intellectual hero always rendered by Euripides as the epitome of conniving politicians. And Helen, loathed by both sides, maintains such fierce self-possession and spirited cunning that she seems the most warlike, victorious entity in Troy.

Michael Cacoyannis (Anglicised from Mihalis Kakogiannis), a director who often adapted stage works and a prominent figure of a small but eye-catching Greek New Wave in early ’60s cinema, had become known worldwide with a Cannes prize-winning version of another Euripides play, Electra (1962), and then his excellent, earthy adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek (1964). His subsequent film career stumbled with the much-loathed gay nuclear comedy The Day the Fish Came Out (1967), and a lot of subsequent missed opportunities, such as often befell European directors of the era who wavered uneasily between their roots and Hollywood. His adaptation of The Trojan Women, however, more than deserves disinterring: it deserves celebration as a sublimely gritty film, with primal intensity in its performances and naturalistic location photography. A few years ago, when Wolfgang Peterson’s prosaic Troy was released, some critics recalled Cacoyannis’ film, and in particular, Irene Papas’ staggering Helen, with new nostalgia. Papas, who had played the ill-fated lover of Alan Bates’ English scholar in Zorba, plays a variation on that character here, a woman whose infernal beauty and galvanising pride—simply for the fact of her being—so outrages the lesser mortals about her that it drives them to screaming, stone-hurling outrage.

Cacoyannis’ adaptation, taken from Edith Hamilton’s respected translation of the play, strips away the metaphysical framing devices and most of the chorus interludes, and introduces the action instead with a functional voiceover to set the scene. This leaves the dramatic dialogues, in which Hecuba, waiting with the hundreds of other Trojan women on the sun-withered hills outside the city, accounts her own woes. She also tries to console Cassandra (Genevieve Bujold), as Greek herald Talthybius (Brian Blessed) comes to fetch her for Agamemnon. Cassandra reels through the vast interior of a holy cave in her unhinged ferocity, singing songs to Hymen, the god of nuptials, a bitterly ironic epistle considering she’s lost her virginity in rape and is about to be dragged off as a sex slave. Andromache (Vanessa Redgrave) keeps her young son Astyanax (Alberto Sanz) close to her whilst her dead husband Hector’s armour is hauled to the Greek encampment as a prize; Talthybius, who detests the grim duties he’s been given but doesn’t shrink from them, tells Andromache that the Greek chieftains have decided Astyanax is to be killed to prevent his growing into a man who might avenge his father.

Although based on classical tragedy, The Trojan Women is very much a product of the cinematic atmosphere of the early ’70s, with its virulent antiwar and protofeminist themes, and very physical New Wave cinematic techniques: sweeping, swooping zoom shots, interludes of aggressively realistic handheld camerawork, and a purposeful lack of artifice in lighting and costuming. Shot in Spain, the baking sun that’s dehydrating and maddening the waiting women is practically palpable. Such verisimilitude was a consistent approach for films tackling venerable material at the time, like Philip Saville’s Oedipus the King (1968), a moderate example, and Pasolini’s “Mythical” and “Medieval” series, or Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), superior ones. Rather than use clouds of ominous portent to suggest tragedy, Cacoyannis’s staging in the heat of the brightest day is both a response to the simple truth of climate, but also canny in making nature as incisive, revealing, and pitiless as the unfolding situation.

Although the look of The Trojan Woman is realistic, the acting styles are more distinctly stylised, though kept mostly just this side of the theatrical. Considering the colossal, outsized emotions and events the actresses must represent, such stylisation is not inappropriate. And the ritualised form of the play is essential to its effect and meaning: it’s not a work of historical reportage, nor does Cacoyannis pretend it’s one. Hepburn uses her dry, snapping voice to wound and snarl and mourn with orchestral effect. The condensed anguish buckles the actresses’ bodies and threatens to wrench their spirits out of their flesh, building to the bloodcurdling moment when Andromache, realising exactly what the Greeks propose to do to her son, emits a slight groaning sound as if she’s been stabbed in the lung, slowly rising to a hideous cry of woe, one of those moments that would make good any claim that Redgrave’s the finest English-speaking actress of the past 40-odd years.

Adapting the device of the chorus to make it work for a modern audience is a difficult feat in the theatre—never mind cinema—and Cacoyannis cut away all of it except for one spellbinding moment when the Trojan women mass together and recount how the city was taken. Cacoyannis, who did his own editing, cuts rapidly through ultra-close-ups of their ranked faces, eyes filling frames as the story of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy drones on, the tale falling from their lips as a litany of betrayals and abuses. The heightened realism works, though it does point to a lack in The Trojan Women as adaptation: Euripides’ choruses were usually the vessels of his finest poetry and offered islets of peace and reflection. Losing most of them robs the story of balance and beauty, but it’s largely necessary to maintaining the kind of dramatic integrity needed in motion pictures, and the film flows with proper remorselessness.

The women are sometimes as much at war with each other, it seems, as they were with the Greeks, and there’s a darkly misanthropic aspect to how each of them tries to outdo the others in listing their woes, as if there’s a kind of triumph in trying to mask and mediate the devastation. Where in any situation but this one grief, loss, and defeat would be ennobling at least in how one’s immediate society treats one, when an entire society has been annihilated, there’s no respite at all, only other haggard, sorrow-corroded faces to look at. Yet fellowship continually asserts itself, as Hecuba chides Cassandra with enough astringent force to bring her daughter out of her hysteria, and instructs Andromache in the arts of accepting cruel decisions. Andromache angrily derides Hecuba’s almost exultant self-celebration as a figure of woe whose sons and husband are now dead, pointing out that such was at least the honourable death of warriors, whilst she’s left to raise a young son with no place in the world—and even that proves to be a better burden than the final one she’s given. Hecuba, with her still explosive, regal energy, turns her own survival and defiance into an ongoing resistance.

The war isn’t even finished yet: the Greeks are still afraid of Hector, parading his armour about on a stand to display their capture of his memory, and still needing the blood of his son to be spilt in the most savage fashion possible. When Menelaus (Patrick Magee) turns up, he asserts complete power over what to do with Helen, the war’s nominal cause, and everyone expects her to be executed for her treachery. Helen lurks, caged like a wild beast, behind the wooden slats of a gated hut. But her guards take no chances, not wanting to be blamed in case Helen, as everyone senses, can weasel her way out of her situation: when soldiers deny the parched, panting prisoners any water, instead pouring out libations for themselves, the guard attempts to surreptitiously slip a dish of it to Helen, immediately stirring the anger of the other prisoners. Helen defiantly doesn’t even drink the water, but strips off her clothes to wash herself, stoking the other women’s wrath to foaming rage; they begin pelting her prison with stones and work up the will to charge the prison, drag her out, and tear her to pieces. The Greek soldiers have to rally to push them back.

Papas’ Helen, when she finally emerges, looks every bit as martially fierce as any warrior, never demurring or trying to look humble even as she attempts to soften Menelaus’ anger, spinning a tale that Hecuba furiously mocks about how she had tried to return to the Greek camp to end the war, and also sharpening her own vicious tongue to a point in reminding her one-time husband that the war, in spite of the Greeks’ aggrieved rhetoric, hasn’t worked out too badly for them. Whilst playing the martyr, Helen still makes it clear that she’s nobody’s victim. Her appeals are successful enough to make Menelaus decide to hold off her execution until they return home, and, as Hecuba recognises, that’s all the foothold she needed to come through this slaughter free and clear. Talthybius presents Hecuba and the other women with Astyanax’s body after he’s been killed, and as both emblem of Troy and final, bleakest sacrifice to the spirit of war, they give him a funeral. As night falls, the Greeks torch what’s left of the city, and Hecuba, in a momentary fit of despair, attempts to hurl herself into the fires, but gives up and shuffles away into slavery with the remaining women.

It’s a sad saga the film recounts, but the final effect of the drama is satisfying only in its total evocation of defeat: all fear, anger, fight, and passion have been exhausted by the conclusion, and there’s nothing left indeed but to accept it and move on—that, of course, is the essence of catharsis. I can’t help but find it a pity Cacoyannis didn’t continue on and film, say, Euripides’ own feel-good sequel Andromache. Cacoyannis evokes Holocaust images as bushels of the women prisoners are rounded up and crowded onto carts to be hauled away, and the final burning of Troy lends the very finish an apocalyptic air, as if all the world’s ending, which, in a way, it is. The film’s immediate political resonances are suggestive, too: Greece was in the hands of a military junta at the time of production, and Cacoyannis’s regular collaborator, Mikis Theodorakis, having once been imprisoned by that regime for his activism, wrote the film’s score whilst in exile. The atmosphere of oppression, destruction, and hate is urgent, and whilst some of the camerawork gets hammy on occasions, that’s the price the film pays for never feels stagy or hidebound—far from it. Whilst the greater part of The Trojan Women‘s drama and effect flows from its words, it’s also vibrant and beautiful cinema, and a vital, bristling, morally engaged artwork.


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