By Christopher Bell | The Playlist March 6, 2012 at 12:04PM
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.
Protagonist Marina is repulsed by anything sexual, which explains the awkward opening scene a bit better. At the age of 23, she realizes how her disinterest in the opposite gender might be a little strange, so she becomes open with Bella and her father (Vangelis Mourikis, "Knifer") in hopes to understand her feelings and, even more hopefully, to feel something and become "normal." Her behavior may remind some of the way children handle certain things, a mindset best displayed in her blunt questions to dad ("Have you ever pictured me naked?" and "I always picture you without a penis. Do you have one?"). Even though this sounds like a truly stunted individual, she's able to be strong in other situations, particularly as she consoles her father during cancer treatment or even later when she's discussing cremation options (a process that happens to be illegal in Greece -- thus requiring more energy and hush-hush work). Chalk her attitude up to naiveté, case-specific maturity, or a mixture of both -- either way, she's mostly able to function properly in society and take on various responsibilities. It's only in romance and sex that she finds herself unresponsive.
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.
Tsangari steers away from the bright, beautiful Greece that Angelopoulos and even "Dogtooth" filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos showcased. Instead, things are grey and bleak, decaying and cold. Plenty of shots are given to the aluminum processing facility that both the engineer and, as a driver, Marina work at. As a criticism of the post-industrial country, it's striking -- things feel particularly dehumanizing, especially given the strangely toned relationship between characters. If anything, these people are a product of an environment so eager to jump on the industrial bandwagon that they (according to Marina's father) "built factories on top of sheep pens."
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]