Attenberg starts out promisingly enough. In a very stylish opening scene, we watch Marina (Ariane Labed), the 23 year old lead character in director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s new film, being taught by her sexually adventurous friend Bella (Evangelia Randou) the fine art of tongue kissing. Marina is a virgin and has never even kissed, something that becomes clear once she begins to awkwardly move her tongue in irregular movements. Instants later, Suicide’s Ghost Rider plays in the background while we glimpse several empty and well organized middle class environments: a water sprinkler on a garden, a tennis court, and a church.
I’ll admit to being a sucker for a well-placed pop song in a film. The opening scenes in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets or the final moments in Joel Coen’s Blood Simple are so powerful that they have become staple examples of how effective this technique can be when put to good use. I also remember at one time stumbling upon a bizarre and haunting Australian experimental film called Teenage Babylon (watch it here) where a reconstruction of police footage of teenage suicides is shown alongside 1950s pop ballads concerning heartbreak and lost loves. Attenberg makes regular use of this tactic. In one scene the two abovementioned girls sing Francoise Hardy’s Tout Les Garçons et les Filles in a bedroom and, as their singing is replaced by Hardy’s original version of the song, the camera pans across several tennis courts after a rainy day, filming them from behind tress, voyeuristically observing the lives of these people.
The fact that such a scene is one of the most interesting moments in Attenberg says a lot about the experience one can expect from it. Attenberg is technically solid, yet often distant and cold. The carefully crafted cinematography makes constant use of opaque colors and distant shots to reinforce the emptiness and boredom of the film’s characters, all of whom seem so hopelessly out of touch with one another. It seems to want to communicate how cold and distant humans are from themselves while inviting us to observe them not unlike how Marina obverses the animals in David Attenborough’s nature documentaries (her mispronouncing of the documentarian’s surname is the title for the film).
The comparisons to Dogtooth will inevitably surface. That highly acclaimed film brought a worldwide attention to contemporary Greek production of offbeat and peculiar films, which in turn led to the recently coined term, “Greek Weird Wave”. There are more direct connections, however. Yorgos Lanthimos, the man behind the nightmarishly enclosed world of Dogtooth, has a role in Attenberg as the out of town engineer who ends up having an affair with Marina. Likewise, Attenberg’s director Athina Tsangari was the associate producer for Lanthimos film. Most importantly, both films offer a generally bleak and depressing view of humanity, but one whose particularities are not always clear to the audience. Marina is so disconnected from her fellow humans that she seems to prefer to watch nature documentaries and to mimic the animals she sees on screen alongside her dying father, often straight out saying she desires no one or that she hates compassion. There are times, however, when the delivery is too blunt or too obvious to be really effective, such as when the engineer tells Marina she’s too young to like Suicide (he is of course, referring to the band).
More often than it should, Attenberg is simply trying too hard. The impeccably deadpan cinematography, the lead performances, and an exciting soundtrack save it from what could have been just another generic, depressing, euro art-house flick. Its relation to Dogtooth and the recent interest in Greek cinema certainly work in its favor, providing Attenberg with attention it may not have received otherwise. That being said, while the film has some memorable moments, it doesn’t do much to dispel the notion that the so-called Greek Weird Wave has yet to distinguish itself from its most successful film and prove that it’s more than just a one hit wonder.