In a Greek factory town by the sea, an isolated 23-year-old, Marina (Ariane Labed), mimics the repetitive behaviour of animals featured in David Attenborough documentaries. Marina's architect father is suffering from fading health, and her promiscuous friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), provides her with tantalising accounts of a different world.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is exactly the kind of film that fuels discussion about the divide that exists between critics and audiences. Lauded at festivals the world over, this stark, experimental drama/comedy will have some analysts spouting praise for its strikingly vivid form and content, fearless acting and frank handling of sex and death. But for all but the most rabid cinephiles, the film will likely be met with a collective 'Huh...?" at best, frustrated derision at worst.
In all aspects of adulthood, Marina (Ariane Labed) has developed at a much slower rate than her friend, the free-spirited Bella (Evangelia Randou). Marina’s interpretation of human behaviour is informed by her observations of the animal world through the lens of wildlife documentarian Sir David Attenborough (his mispronounced name gives the film its title). However, Marina is suddenly confronted by human obstacles: her father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) is dying, and Bella is taunting her over her sexual inexperience, a problem that Marina decides to fix with the help of a stranger, known simply as Engineer (Giorgos Lanthimos).
Marina’s animalistic response to her problems suits Bella, who indulges her friend’s penchant for barking and licking (a torrid French kiss between the two women opens the film); Spyros too, understands the joy his daughter derives from leaping about like an ape. But Engineer is shocked by the frankness of her sexual inexperience (as will be some audience members) and gently, he endeavours to educate her in the ways of human interaction.
The crisp compositions and random angles captured by Thimios Bakatakis’ camera bring to mind that other Greek oddity, Dogtooth (2010). Both seem to represent a rethink of the rules of linear narrative and accepted film language, suggesting that the Greek film industry is on the verge of a period of exciting creativity. That said, both Dogtooth (which Tsangari worked on as associate producer) and Attenberg are staunchly impenetrable works that closely resemble art installations that don’t resonate beyond a select few; if a film renaissance does emerge from Greece on the back of such films, will anyone notice?
As Marina, Ariane Labed, who scored Best Actress honours at Venice 2010, provides just enough humanity and warmth when the film needs it most. The overt stylistic demands of her director, though, dictate that a degree of self-consciousness in her performance is unavoidable; scenes opposite Randou often feel like acting class exercises, so defiantly removed from reality are they in execution. Thankfully, Labed and Mourikis get to share some key father/daughter moments (even if they are talking about incest, infidelity and penises at the time).
There is joy to found in Attenberg, most notably in Labed and Randou’s precise mimicry during a sidewalk march which conjures images of John Cleese’s famous 'Minister of Silly Walks’ sketch. But the abstract, deliberately disconcerting nature of Tsangari’s film defines it as an intellectual exercise. Given its focus is the emergence of a young woman into adulthood, stronger emotional ties to the leads may have served the director’s artistic aims far more effectively.