Attenberg, Athina Tsangari

Athina Tsangari’s ‘Attenberg’ Leaves a Pungent Impression

Attenberg is not, strictly speaking, an enjoyable film, or even a comprehensible one. But it leaves a pungent impression you can’t easily shake.

Athina Tsangari
Strand Releasing
9 December 2010 (GR)

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 into uniform browns and greys. Tsangari, who was the producer of last year’s Academy Award-nominated Dogtooth, shows a Greece far 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 that 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 express the mood of the main character, Marina, and her apparent existential despair. The stern and rigorous way Attenberg is filmed demonstrates what an influence Michael Haneke has 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 Marina is withdrawn, slightly sullen and lonely.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 almost 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.

Marina and Bella imitate the animals from David Attenborough documentaries to inject some life into their surroundings. They shuffle, stamp, and screech in perfect unison, performing for 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 which 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 films her two leads walking arm-in-arm down a street.

This is markedly contrasted with Attenberg’s clinical approach to sex. Marina is divided between being 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. 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 characters are for us to observe rather than get to know, perhaps like an Attenborough documentary. 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 leaves a pungent impression you can’t easily shake.

RATING 7 / 10