Home Video Hovel- Attenberg, by Patrick Felton
There’s much connective tissue between Giorgos Lanthimos’ divisive Academy Award nominated film Dogtooth and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg. A graduate of University of Texas Austin’s famous film school, Tsangari produced Lanthimos’s first two films. Attenberg star Ariane Labed appears later this summer in Lanthimos’s new film Alps. Lanthimos himself even co-stars in Attenberg.
However audacious it may be to say, Attenberg is the better film. In fact, it may be the best release of 2012 thus far.
Winner of the Best Actress award at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, Attenberg is an intimate, elegiac portrait of young restlessness and sexual anxiety. Where Dogtooth was a troubling examination of parental control and manipulation, Attenberg trades in the curiosity and apprehension. Tsangari is able to take many of the themes of isolation and sexual naiveté present in Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and transpose them into the experience of young adulthood with a level of humanity and implied generosity. The result is one of the most remarkable releases of 2012 a blend of captivating aesthetic and off-putting yet fascinating behavior.
On an aesthetic level, the film is a feast to listen to. The notable lack of a musical score refocuses our attention towards the diegetic sounds of the film. Each scene seems to have some notable background noise to add to the intimate yet distancing narrative. The film is filled with the sounds of industrial hell: Cars, mopeds machinery, air conditioners, all the things that are usually sought to be erased from the soundtrack.
When the film finally gives us a moment of music, in which two of the characters sing along to a French pop song while walking through the street, it becomes ever the more poignant. Even in this moment, the music remains diagetic, with the girls singing along in one unbroken shot. The fact that a track by the band Suicide becomes so integral to the plot is amplified by the muted soundscape of the rest of the film.
This is not to say that the visuals are unambitious. The blue gloomy industrial landscape is displayed with the same level of intimacy as the visuals. The film is plotted with numerous static shots of lingering over urban landscapes, empty rooms and the plant which dominates the landscape. The film’s cold natural light combines with its seaside setting to give it a lonely and isolated feeling, comparative to Cold Weather. Indeed the continual blend of sound and urban industrial gloom seems vaguely reminiscent of Antonioni’s Red Desert.
Within this desolate urban habitat, Tsangari decides to study the strangest of creatures, 16 year old Marina. Marina’s behavior is defined by apathy and contemptuous whimsy. In one scene she may be brooding in a bar, and the next she is reenacting unsettling animalistic dances with her friend Bella.
In the film’s first frame, 23 year old Marina (Ariane Labed) engages in possibly the most awkward kiss in cinematic history with her best friend Bella (Evangelia Randou). Again, the awkwardness of this kiss cannot be understated. It is almost as Marina is trying to eat large segments of birdseed out of Bella’s mouth. Neither individuals seem particularly enjoy the kiss, and Marina has a look of confused disgust on her face. Its deeply animalistic in a fascinating and horrifying way.
Her disgust with physical intimacy and the idea of sex quickly becomes a theme of the film. Marina has a tormented terrified attitude towards sexuality. She dreads sexual the male member, despite the concerns of her dying father Spyros Marina has no frame of reference for dealing with sex outside of the BBC nature documentaries of which she is obsessed. In one scene in which she attempts to lose her virginity in a hotel room, she feels the need to narrate everything she is doing as if she is the gorilla from a BBC nature show. Indeed even the title of the film is derived from her obsession, a misspelling of legendary nature documentary narrator Sir David Attenborough.
Because the film is episodic and lacking in strong narrative thrust, Tsangari is able to linger on the monotony and tedium of regular day. The film moves from Marna dealing with her dying father to inexplicable synchronized dance sequences between Marina and Bella. A veteran of experimental film exhibition, Tsangari has a special gift for dropping the audience in a long unbroken scene of an ordinary moment, leaving them there for much longer than expected and only moving on to the next scene until they have been fully immersed. The constant ever present drone of the factory looms over the town adding a level of dread to the films already intentionally tedious aesthetic.
What makes Attenberg remarkable is its ability to seamlessly blend the its immersive style with its strange and off-putting character study. The credit for this must be split equally between Tsangari and actress Ariane Labed. Labed’s portrayal is fearless and unmannered as inert as it is quirky.
One result of this gestalt of intimacy and off-putting behavior is that the audience is forced to accept and empathize with Marina without ever really understanding her. Even if no direct window is given into her mind, the experiences of loneliness remain universal. Tsangari seems to occasionally channel her roots in the Austin film scene to create what feels like the Greek equivalent of mumblecore, trusting the authenticity of every moment beyond its value as plot. A deeply listless and tedious third act hits home the level of frustration and misery of losing a loved one to cancer.
The film itself is like the Attenborough documentaries, constantly studying and probing the actions and behaviors of its subjects in relationship to their natural habitat. The film’s treatment of Marina is anthropological, objective, clinical, and unsentimental.
By placing human sexuality in an evolutionary context, the film is able to link sex in death in a poignant yet understanding way, juxtaposing Arianne’s attempts to come to terms with her own biology with Spyros’ slow march towards expiration. Spyros, a stalwart atheist seems strangely at peace with his imminent demise. In a way the film’s tagline “Sexy Strange and Beautifully Deranged” sells this film short. The film’s ambitions seem much different than other entries in the flood of female centered sex comedies of the last few years. Attenberg is almost the anti-sex comedy, externalizing the awkwardness of sexual experience in starkly unsentimental terms.