Review: Attenberg (2010)
Given his breakthrough 2009 hit Dogtooth, it is unsurprising that director Yorgos Lanthimos’ name is now almost synonymous with Greek cinema. Taking inspiration from that film, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (Lanthimos’ first production credit for a film he did not direct) makes a strong case for the Greek cinema as one of Europe’s most increasingly interesting.
Against the plain background of a white wall, two young women bring their heads together and unromantically kiss. One, the blonde Marina, is awkward and uncomfortable, clearly unsure of what to do. The other, the black-haired Bella, is far more in control, instructing Marina and correcting her wide-mouthed approach. This is evidently a lesson of sorts; we soon learn that Marina has never kissed a man, counting herself as uninterested in matters of sexuality, but has asked Bella to show her how anyway. This striking opening scene is simultaneously amusing and somehow disconcerting, Marina’s lack of understanding of a key aspect of human interaction the first indication of the oddity the film will explore in greater detail.
Marina attracts some comparison to the eerily sheltered children of Dogtooth, though hers appears far more so a self-imposed distance from society. She is at least a good deal more functional, holding down a decent job as a driver and showing an understanding of normalcy, if not abiding by it herself. Her one passion in life is the nature documentaries of David Attenborough, whose name Bella mispronounces to give us the film’s title. Marina watches these religiously, inspired to such an extent that she mimics the animals examined therein, adopting their mannerisms in lieu of her own. A recurring scenario sees her, arm in arm with Bella, moving down an isolated path in a series of bizarre animalistic leaps and kicks, as though she is seeking to find a style of movement to suit her. These scenes provide amusing tangential abstractions scattered throughout the story, but also give us a telling visual expression of this character’s feeling of discomfort within her own species.
“Am I asexual?” wonders Marina aloud at one point, more to herself than to the puzzled Bella who looks on. Is this a sexually confused character, or just a decidedly sexless one? Attenberg examines human sexuality like David Attenborough would examine a strange new animal’s process of courtship, standing on the outside and peering in. Looking forlornly out at the sea beyond one night, Marina is called and invited up to the hotel room of an engineer whom she has been driving to and from work. She throws herself at him not out of desire, but more out of curiosity. The sex they have is cold and unromantic, dissected with the clinical eye of a nature documentary. What is this thing that so drives humans? Marina views it as disgusting and strange, a bizarre ritual that holds little attraction. Her arguments are even a little convincing. Attenberg makes no statements as to its own opinions, only presenting those of its character in a fascinatingly original and entertaining manner.
Like Bella, Marina’s father Spyros joins her in her surreal games, returning her imitations of animal sounds. Together they leap across his bed like gorillas or snort at each other like pigs; this is in fact almost entirely the extent of their activities together. The first few scenes in which we see them, they sit together in silence; theirs is not a forced relationship, they simply have little to discuss with each other. The few conversations they have are centred around sex, Marina unashamedly open with her father and with questioning him about his own sexual history. These questions come not because she is being inappropriately forward, but simply because she is completely oblivious to the idea of any sort of conversational propriety. He makes regular trips to the hospital to take treatment for an unspecific disease we eventually learn to be fatal. The silence that shrouds he and his daughter’s meetings seems more profound, this fact considered.
Attenberg’s narrative is so strangely compelling and bizarrely fascinating that it is often easy to be distracted from the impressive work Tsangari achieves visually. Most memorable is a long tracking shot following Marina and Spyros as they ride through an abandoned industrial site on a scooter. Towering structures surround them, corroded over the years and now standing as ugly monuments to more prosperous times. The shot lasts long enough to convey the immense expanse of this area; the town seems defined by these hideous remnants of an industrial age that is now as long gone as the money that came with it. “It’s as if we were designing ruins” remarks Spyros at one point, highlighting Attenberg’s take on the Greece of today. Throughout the film there are many wide shots of the town and its harbour as well as closer shots of the streets between scenes, each of them devoid of people whether day or night. The once great industrial town has fallen into disrepair and decay, now abandoned and deserted by all.
At its surface, Attenberg functions as an odd and whimsical exploration of sexual and self-discovery, a philosophical take on what exactly it is that makes us us. On a deeper level however, beneath its innocent pondering, it speaks to a state of national crisis. Be it in the character of the ailing father leaving his daughter unprepared for the world beyond, the crumbling architectural leftovers of a better time, or the total absence of people where once there thrived a bustling society, this is a powerful allegorical look at a point of crisis in Greek history. Perfectly carried by a strong cast, an enthralling approach, and a keen-eyed director, Attenberg is a film to be cherished, a true sign of the times.