[14 June 2011]
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is a powerful and unconventional depiction of modern Greece in the throes of its economic crisis; flat, bleak and empty, with the colour drained out into uniform browns and greys. Tsangari, who was the producer of last year’s Academy Award-nominated cult film Dogtooth, accomplishes in this to break Greece from the touristy, ancient culture clichés in which it is often imagined; she shows us her homeland as it exists away from the main streets. The setting of Attenberg is a grimy industrial town on the sea which seems almost devoid of life. A character remarks grimly at the start, “we built industrial factories on top of sheep pens”.
The rocky hills and grey waves are used as an expression of the mood of the main character, Marina, and her apparent existential despair. The stern and rigorous way in which Attenbergis filmed also demonstrates what an influence Michael Haneke is having on European cinema. Marina is withdrawn, slightly sullen and lonely. As played by Ariane Lebad, in a striking performance, she has an imposing presence, a face that is almost androgynous in its beauty, and something always readable in her eyes, perhaps sadness. Her father, whom she has an unusually close and almost Elektra-like relationship with, is dying. She has a competitive relationship with her best (and impliedly only) friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou)—sometimes they insult each other, at others their friendship takes on an erotic nature. At one stage, Bella lifts her shirt and offers her breasts for Marina to hold.
To inject some life into their surroundings, Marina and Bella take to imitating the animals from David Attenborough documentaries. In perfect unison, they shuffle, stamp and screech, performing their routines to no-one in particular. I can’t recall such an unconventional ‘twisted genius’ premise for a film since Being John Malkovich, and it’s not always clear what animal they’re emulating, or if they are at all. But this is a highlight;the performances are highly physical, and perfectly choreographed to accentuate the bizarreness. These sequences begin to take on their own, strange rhythm which is oddly affecting; it’s also apparent in a brilliant scene featuring the French song, “Tous les garçons et les filles”, in which Tsangari simply films her two leads walking arm-in-arm down a street.
This is markedly contrasted with the film’s clinical approach to sex. Marina is divided being between disinterested or physically repulsed by sex and being obsessed with her own sexuality; in one scene, she scrutinises herself, naked, in front of a changing-room mirror. The film memorably begins with Bella teaching her how to kiss—“Open your mouth”, she instructs—and one of Attenberg’s funniest moments is when a man leans in to kiss Marina and she responds by awkwardly dropping her jaw and sticking out her tongue.
Attenberg is an interesting film because of its ideas and the way it is shot. Tsangari maintains a distance from her characters, never really using close-ups until the final few scenes. This gives the impression that the people in it are for us to observe rather than to get to know, perhaps like an Attenborough documentary itself. We are free to impose any overarching meaning on the film we like, and it will certainly not be for everyone. It is not, strictly speaking, an enjoyable film, or even a comprehensible one. But it’s always fun to wrestle with, and it leaves a pungent impression you can’t easily shake.