Athina Rachel Tsangari's "Attenberg": Awakening and Farewell

in 11st T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival

by Kira Taszman

When Marina spends time with her friend Bella, they indulge in all kinds of silly activities. Spitting out of a window is one of them, and imitating animals is another — but mostly they re-create silly dances. Not only is watching the two young women clad in apron-like dresses perform these choreographed movements utterly enjoyable, but these scenes also serve as interludes in Attenberg. They provide a well-defined structure for Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s second feature film, which won the international competition of the New Horizons International Film Festival 2011 in Wroclaw.

Tsangari herself prefers to call the performances by the two occasional dancers a Greek chorus. It is a chorus without words, where both performers are in synch with one another. But when it comes to verbal communication about life experience, differences between the two become apparent. Bella (Evangelia Randou) has had many lovers and likes to dwell on her adventures in detail. Marina (Ariane Labed), on the other hand, is sexually inexperienced and also has to look after her father, a terminally ill architect.

Tsangari’s film is a compelling coming-of-age story with an unconventional, yet appealing, heroine, who will experience two fundamental steps in life and go on from there. Twenty-three-year-old Marina can be quite bold and is always straightforward. Having never kissed a man, she practises kissing with Bella, but cannot see the point of it. She desires men, yet sex seems futile, even revolting to her. Though accepting the animal universe of the nature documentaries by David Attenborough (whom her friend mistakenly calls “Attenberg”), she cannot imagine ever performing such seemingly animal-like sexual acts herself.

When she finally meets a young engineer (Giorgos Lanthimos), her directness and utter sincerity in erotic matters confuse yet touch him. The spectator feels the same, and also experiences some amusement watching sex scenes where she keeps pestering him with questions and comments, resulting in his temporarily losing his virile powers. These sequences, conveying her refreshing, almost inquisitive curiosity, don’t generate embarrassment. They differ greatly from most conventional sex scenes on the big screen, where either everyone knows perfectly well what they’re doing, or where the director, in a defined aesthetic, strives to convey (great) emotions. Marina’s behaviour in bed is nothing but a consistent continuation of her attitude to life in general.

Nonetheless, the most important man in Marina’s life is her ever-more fragile father (Vangelis Mourikis). She accompanies him to his treatment in hospital and looks after him in a daughterly fashion, which is neither over-protective nor reluctant and never questions her commitment to him. Their relationship is full of complicity, yet in her own undeviating way, Marina also likes to confront him with taboo issues such as the notion of them imagining each other naked. To that, her father reacts in a manner as equally confused as her lover. However, her thoughts mirror Bella’s reflections on men and sex, even though Bella plays in a different league in this. She had told Marina of her dream about a tree full of penises of different shapes and sizes, which, prior to meeting the engineer, had caused little enthusiasm in Marina.

There aren’t any melodramatic scenes in this portrait of a constantly questioning and demanding young woman. Tsangari’s style is laconic, playful and direct. However, the more the film evolves along with its principal character, the more emotionally drawn into it one becomes.

Attenberg is set in a gloomy industrial seaside town constituting the most unlikely Greek backdrop one could imagine. With its declining industrial settings and deserted factory it stands for an era that is drawing to a close, much like Marina’s old life. Even though the imminent death of her father and his bitter and cynical talk cause her pain, she is on the verge of emancipation from her former life. At the end, Françoise Hardy’s emblematic “Tous les garçons et les filles”, a song about teenage loneliness, which Marina had played on the guitar, won’t apply to her anymore. She will turn a final page in a moving, yet unsentimental, farewell scene.