Director/producer Athina Rachel Tsangari’s reluctance to be lumped in with some nebulous Greek New Wave is as understandable as the categorization is inevitable. She has been producing the work of Giorgos Lanthimos, and her second film as director shares with his Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) not only strong tonal and thematic similarities, and an interest in linguistic distortion, but also the cool white light of Thimios Bakatakis’ camerawork on the former; Lanthimos even takes the supporting role of in cast’s quartet.
Like Dogtooth, Attenberg is something of a case study. The title is a mispronunciation of (Sir David ) Attenborough, the idol of a young woman, Marina (Ariane Labed, from Alps). She lives in a rather bleak industrial town on the coast, with a dying architect father, and a sexually forward best friend, Bella. The study concerns her discovery of sex, towards which she initially feels disgust: the film opens with a sloppy, forcibly awkward (no hands) kiss the between the best friends, with Bella instructing. Marina says Bella’s tongue in her mouth feels like a slug but later, after an awkward episode of nudity, she will be initiated into actual intercourse by a visiting engineer (Lanthimos). That their eventual coupling should evidently be real, filmed by a detached camera, is entirely appropriate to the film’s evocation of nature documentaries; it also, deliberately or not, connects with the father’s explanation that taboos are a tool of evolution in the human animal (although otherwise Tsangari worries at the uncomfortably off-limits much less than in Lanthimos’s films).
Perhaps it is that absence of unease that allows the film’s eccentricities to protrude. The recurring emphasis on physicality (present also in her films as producer) stems from Tsangari’s extensive dance background: she has Labed move her uncanny, protruding shoulder blades in a beautifully lit abstract composition, for Bella’s entertainment; and time and again we cut to the girls in almost matching dresses, doing silly walks down a long courtyard pathway. Amusing as some of these walks are, they develop a rote tone, like actor’s exercises; the same is true of several scenes that devolve from rat-a-tat assonant wordplay into non verbal, animalistic play-acting.
The childish air of the opening scene (it develops into all-four primate play) and Marina’s semi-autistic approach to sex (she appears normally developed in all other ways) are explained by her father’s wish that she live with other people – she simply states that that is not how he brought her up, and we’re left to wonder at past details. The heady atmosphere of awakening is convincingly whipped up by Bella’s detached account a dream, a tree dripping with penises; but one remains fatally curious as to what has retarded this young woman so.
The offhand elision of backstory is familiar from Dogtooth and Alps, as is the small group in self-imposed separation, of vague cause. But there are others in this albeit sparsely populated town: in Bella’s bar; in a slo-mo female changing room to the bird-like chirp of Daniel Johnston singing “I am a baby in the universe” (women are? Marina is? It seems calculated more for suggestion than meaning); and in a row of lamplit youths past whom the girls walk slowly, lip-synching to François Hardy’s cry of loneliness, “Tous les garcons et les filles”. Ultimately, in ways also skirted by those previous films, the eccentricity feels too put on.
Just as the film presents these people as mammals, its languid pace allows also for numerous static insterstitials of their habitat, the wintery, industrial town. This landscape becomes resonant only for a moment however, when Marina’s father Spyros late on rues his part in its creation, the failure of his dream of innovation, and the banal, repetitive reality that resulted. All too inevitable, however, that the final shot should long hold on a dour mining yard, to no more than suggestive purpose.
Tsangari confessed last year to Jonathon Romney that she feared her film might really be a mess, and she’s close to being right; structurally haphazard, it is almost a collection of sketches. Some are intriguing nonetheless: there’s a lovely soft image shot through a rain-drenched window; and one episode in particular strikes a true emotional chord, a surprising and underplayed expression of grief, in an empty hospital corridor, as though the impending inevitable finally sinks in on Marina for the first time. But together these scenes add up to nothing very comprehensive or satisfying; and undermined by eccentricities, the casting of the naturalist’s eye on specimens of the human animal does not ring true, either in terms of sexual discovery or grief.