If we’re going to attach Attenberg to a genre, I suppose it would be a ‘rites-of-passage’ movie, though it’s pretty far removed from what you might imagine if I told you that its about a young woman coming to terms with love and death in a small coastal town. But Attenberg is full of surprises.
Marina (in an award-winning performance by Ariane Labed) works as a driver for a large industrial mill in a coastal Greek town. She lives with her terminally ill father, hangs out with her best friend Bella, listens to Suicide and Francois Hardy, and seems suspicious of every facet of humanity – the film opens with her getting a lesson in how to kiss, which she thinks is totally disgusting.
It’s a remarkably coherent film given that it runs the gamut from riotous to somber without ever feeling like a change in tone. It manages to find a place for musical sequences, philosophical thoughts on the state of Greece and is frequently punctuated with physical stream-of-consciousness, in the form of Marina and Bella’s choreographed silly walks. Underneath all that though is basically the story of a young woman who doesn’t really understand how she fits into society. ‘Society’ is beautifully rendered here as the modern industrial town – a huge dingy factory set against the mountains permeates every area of the characters’ lives. Marina thinks of sex as an industrial activity (‘like a piston’), her father, as an architect, sees the town, and in extension, Greece itself, as a failed utopia. It makes for some striking, atypical imagery.
The film’s title comes from Bella’s mispronunciation of David Attenborough, Marina’s hero, and Marina is as fascinated by but unconnected to the humans around her as Sir David is to the animals in his documentaries, which Marina and the rest of the cast occasionally imitate. The film is basically an anthropological investigation into the two main poles of the human condition, sex and death, from the point of view of someone who has little time for either – much of the film is concerned with how a person might define their identities by these two things.
But more importantly, Attenberg is hilarious. The cast play it furiously straight, but the film is a never ending stream of odd banter, adolescent in-jokes and sight gags. There’s a bracing, and brutal, frankness here both physically and verbally from all the characters, constantly voicing the most inappropriate thoughts in their heads.
If, formally, Attenberg is reminiscent of last year’s festival favourite Dogtooth (director Athina Rachel Tsangari was a producer on that film, and Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos plays a supporting role here), it feels like an extension of that film’s distanced tone – if Dogtooth was cold, cruel anthropology, Attenberg is more poignant. It’s kind of amazing that such an odd film could reach this kind of emotional pay-off, but like I said, Attenberg is a surprising film.