This is my first exposure to the films that seem to be constituting a Greek New Wave (largely made up of this film plus the ones directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who also appears here as an actor), and if it’s any indication, I’m very excited to see the rest. In the lineage of the French New Wave by way of the more anxious Czech New Wave (and more austere Romanian New Wave), Attenberg takes its time telling a relatively simple story, but I enjoyed every minute I spent with it.
The film opens with Marina and Bella meeting in front of a rundown whitewashed wall and engaging in the longest, most awkward French kisses ever, a fascinating and rather disgusting display of something not at all like sexuality. Bella, the more worldly-wise of the two, is trying to teach Marina about the ways of the flesh, an area about which Marina seems curious mostly because people expect her to be and not because she herself is interested in it at all. Whatever reaction she does have to it is negative, yet it continues to come up through either Bella’s or Marina’s initiation. Thankfully, the film doesn’t really try to psychoanalyze Marina to find the source for her repulsion.
Instead, it portrays Marina’s sense of isolation in the defunct factory town where she and her father reside; she’s caring for him as he nears death, with several hospital visits and MRIs taking place throughout the film. The only other people she really comes into contact with are Bella and young engineer Spyros who catches rides with her as part of her job. The town itself is a remnant of the industrial age, built (by her father as lead architect) as a beacon of modernism for the workers in the factory. Now it has deteriorated into near-ruins and isolation, a failure that her father continues to live with, a failure that permeates the tone of the film.
Marina’s overly clinical view informs her life as well as her views on sex. Her favorite pastime is watching episodes of Sir David Attenbourgh’s nature TV show (the title is a bastardization of his name) and then imitating the animals therein – a combination of scientific and animalistic impulses that play a large part in her character and interactions with others. When she approaches Spyros for a physical relationship, she has no understandings of the nuances of flirtation, and when their relationship progresses, she spends so much time trying to analyze every physical reaction that she’s unable to give herself over to the moment. She seems to have no particular moral or societal qualms about it, she just doesn’t know how to react humanly.
But even though it’s easy to tagline the film with “a repressed girl tries to figure out her sexuality,” there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s actually far more about her suppressed fear of losing her father and learning what it will mean to move on to another man. Really, a lot of her seemingly strange reactions can be traced back to that, and most of the film deals with her attempts to cope with his impending death – she’s stoic, but the time her guard comes closest to breaking down is when her father tries to tell her of his wishes for dealing with his body after death. This is something that all of us with aging parents can relate to, and this film does it with the combination of detachment and just-under-the-surface emotion that moves me the most.
Stylistically, the film is pretty spare, but in a way that utterly works for me. Most noticeable and seemingly out of place are the intercut sequences of Marina and Bella doing “silly walks,” almost dancing across the deserted courtyard of their building. It breaks the film up a little bit, and acts as a sort of chorus to each section. In a way, it seems pretty random, but it somehow works within the film, and mirrors Marina’s imitation of animal behavior that pops up here and there – in the Q&A, Tsangari said it was a way to show the girls breaking with societal norms, showing their independence from the way girls were supposed to behave. I’m not sure I would’ve gotten that just from watching the film, but it definitely makes sense. There’s not a lot of society nearby for them to rebel against directly, so they show their difference and isolation from society in this way, and establish their solidarity with each other, despite their personal differences.
The film won’t please everybody – it’s far too austere for some, and too random for others. But if the particular aesthetic of other 20th century New Waves attracts you, as it does me, you may find Attenberg quite to your tastes. It doesn’t necessarily give up its pleasures easily, but I found cracking its prickly exterior very worthwhile.
Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Screenplay: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Producers: Maria Hatzakou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Ariane Labed, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Country/Language: Greece, Greek
Running Time: 95 min