Thanks to the hard-working welcoming committee of Athina Rachel Tsangari's "Attenberg," we are at first introduced to a white wall, where cracks and stains abound. Two young women, Marina (Ariane Labed) and Bella (Evangelina Randou, "Kinetta") dip into the frame, briefly conversing before launching into an unattractive and aggressive tongue union. They detach, with Bella asking if Marina would like to continue her lesson -- but the student claims to no longer have any "spit left." Smelling bullshit from a mile away, Bella teases her but is unsuccessful in her attempt to persuade her friend to resume education. Instead, they get on all fours and act like animals, swiping at one another before finally walking out of the shot. We're left, again, with that bland wall, only now the camera has pulled out a bit further to reveal some small windows and not-particularly-healthy grass. Only one question remains in our heads -- what the hell are the independent Greek filmmakers smoking?
Of course, the follow up is "where can we get some," which we would then give to our respective indie filmmaking communities. That's not to say that everyone else's indie filmmakers are lackluster (in fact, there's some great stuff in the States lately - "New Jerusalem," "Without," and "Putty Hill" to name a few); nor are we even attempting to pretend that we're well-versed in the landscape of contemporary Greek film, because all we really have to show is an intense love for "Dogtooth" and now "Attenberg." Still, have there been any two films to come out of a country particularly absent from cinema (let's be honest -- we love him, but few know Theodoros Angelopoulos and even fewer can tolerate his pace) that weren't so stunningly unique? Aside from sharing the same color palette as early Michael Haneke films, they're pretty much like no other, tackling social issues with plenty of dark humor and inventive ideas.
Her first sexual encounter with a male involves an unnamed engineer (Girogos Lanthimos, "Dogtooth"), a worker from the nearby factory. After being characteristically forward with him (by stripping completely nude and shoving her tongue down his throat) he stops her, wanting to take things a bit slower. This leads to a much more traditional relationship, one that she seems to be fine with but not particularly wild over. It's a start, she guesses. Regardless of the good news, it's all kept under-wraps from Bella, whom she thinks will woo the secret lover and keep him for herself. Marina refuses to divulge any information on his identity, but does have someone in particular for her best-friend to seduce and fornicate with.
You can call "Attenberg" a sibling of "Dogtooth," as they share a few similarities in look and tone, though the former is much more reserved and completely lacking in violence. But that's not to say it doesn't have its own weirdness, such as the Greek Chorus-esque scenes consisting of the two females in matching dresses walking rhythmically in unison or its insistence in making every character at one point or another pretend to be animals (many are glued to televised Sir David Attenborough documentaries). There's also plenty of strength in lead actress Labed, who despite not knowing a word of Greek and having to learn her lines phonetically, gives a terrifically grounded performance.
An alumni from NYU and former colleague of Richard Linklater (she appears in "Slacker"), Tsangari has been away from the director's chair for over a decade and her first picture, "The Slow Business of Going," never seemed to even make a ripple in the waters. But "Attenberg" doesn't suggest an artist inexperienced or out of practice; instead, it shows someone with a firm voice full of plenty to say. [A]