Saturday, 24 September 2011

FILM REVIEW: Attenberg

Well this was a bizarre one.
Dogtooth is one of my favourite films, and got me excited about Greek cinema and what else they have to offer. Attenberg is directed by the producer of Dogtooth, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and also stars Dogtooth's director as one of the main characters (above). And everything about the trailer reminded me of Dogtooth: long meandering shots, frank almost shocking conversation, uninhibited flesh and sexual connotations; a deep sadness. I was beginning to worry that everyone in Greece was severely repressed in each aspect of their lives and only now cinema is talking about it! But I suspect there's a team here, of like minded individuals whose pertinent style is bold and needs discussing. It also needs more of a set-up, as going into Attenberg blind is going to confuse you a lot.

Here's what I didn't know: Marina (Ariane Labed, who won Best Actress at Venice last year) lives with her father Spyros (Dogtooth director Giorgos Lanthimos) in a prototype factory town on the Greek coast which her father, an architect, helped to design. As cold and sterilised as the town she lives in, Marina has grown up alone with her father watching David Attenborough documentaries (the title is a mispronunciation of his name), acting out with her best friend Bella (Evangelia Randou) whom she both admires and despises on equal levels, and is repulsed at the idea of being with a man, and considers that she may be asexual. Attenberg shows Marina learning about love, with the arrival of a new man in town (Vangelis Mourikis) whom she is able to find attractive, and death, as her ailing father reaches the final stages of his illness.

The film opens with a long scene of Marina and Bella against a wall, tongues jabbing in and out of one another's mouths. This isn't some scandalous sub-plot: Bella, "the slut of the town", is instructing and teaching Marina how to be intimate with a man - it takes practicing with your best friend to a whole new level. It also won't be to everyone's (ahem) tastes: it's visceral and squelchy, and definitely ruffles the viewer within five minutes. Her relationship with Bella is interesting, as they act out animal behaviours with one another, copied from the wildlife documentaries Marina is obsessed with and only shares with the people she loves (there's a lovely scene with her father where they're pretending to be orangutans), but she also hates Bella, and the two of them regularly trade insults and biting remarks, with the intimacy of being sisters who bicker but cannot actually fall-out. All they really have is each other.

Marina's attraction and sexual awakening with the man she drives around in her job is completely awkward but at the same time quite refreshing: he is clearly more experienced and relaxed than she is, but he is gentle with her, and after she has stripped naked in front of him after they first kiss - as she has been instructed - he quietly dresses her again, proposing he wants time for them to develop and he won't take advantage of her. It's the only light in what is a bleak film: she is alone in a town that is alone and there is no bustling social scene or a variety of interesting jobs in her future. It's almost like a dystopia world, yet set in modern day Greece.

The relationship she has with her father is by far the best thing about this film, and stops it feeling so random and cold. Dogtooth had a purveying sense of disquiet to it, whereas this has long spells of emptiness. But Spyros for me is the best character. Thoroughly dependent on his teenage daughter, he is honest about death in a way she cannot handle. But he is also gentle and humorous, treating her like a child in many aspects as they play with medical masks and word games. There' a moment (it's half in the trailer) where they're in a hospital corridor and she runs her finger down his forehead as he sits in a wheelchair and presses his nose. He goes "boooop". It's just wonderful. The hollow tone of the film means the father-daughter relationship and his passing away never renders sentimental or tragic - it's very matter of fact, even the scene where she's choosing what urn his ashes will go in saunters into black comedy territory (I had no idea cremation was illegal in Greece, by the way. It was an interesting detail). The ending lingers too, without much purpose.

Unsure as to whether I'd watch this again. Whilst Dogtooth bowled me over backwards, Attenberg left me feeling slightly cool. The brave performances of its cast - with a certain spontaneity and improvisation no doubt - are arresting to watch, but it just feels a little bit too offhand. I'm much more excited to see Lanthimos' next film Alps which gets a showing at the London Film Festival next month. But it was different and it was original, and by no means a waste of time.

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