Rating: 4/5One of the reasons that Attenberg is a better film than Dogtooth (a film with which it shares many similarities and which Attenberg writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari co-produced) is that it treats the metaphor of the father, central to both films, more expansively and generously, stretching it farther and deepening it into something more profound. At its worst, Dogtooth invited unmerited and aimless angst from viewers, fashioning the paternal figure into a hackneyed symbol of cruel and corrupted authority par excellence. As with Attenberg, it was almost impossible not to consider the film in the context of the Greek economic and political crises, but its symbolic literalism strained after exposure to the real world. Attenberg wisely invokes a kind of lonely, sorrowful compassion for its father figure, and in doing so, we can no longer crudely see him as a mere symbol for the failure of the political state and its authority figures. Instead, as is the case with all fathers, we recognize the impossibility of extricating ourselves from the lineage we share with him, and in this way, the father of Attenberg’s protagonist Marina (Ariane Labed), a dying architect named Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), comes to stand, partly as a result of his own admission, as a surrogate for modernity as a whole. Given this complexity, we rightly struggle to make sense of what see in Attenberg, and the film’s sustained atmosphere of thoughtful ambiguity is one of its major achievements.
Audiences can be notoriously intolerant of such ambiguity, often balking at the sight of anything in a film that explicitly resists intelligibility. Attenberg is filled with such moments, but the film nevertheless succeeds in conveying quite lucid and affecting emotions. Tsangari creates images of a precise insularity and draws us into environments we feel privileged to glimpse so candidly. In one scene, Marina watches a nature documentary featuring Sir David Attenborough (whose mispronounced name gives this film its title), and we hear about the awesome privilege of being face-to-face with a gorilla. This feeling of being directly in the presence of a foreign life form, yet one which retains an intimate connection with ourselves, is actually a remarkably apt encapsulation of the experience of watching Attenberg. The film opens with a shot of Marina and her best friend Bella (Evangelia Randou) practicing kissing, sloppily rubbing their tongues on one another, that seems, in fact, like its own warped take on the nature documentary (in this case, less mammalian and more insect-like, their tongues resembling protruding probosci). Making this connection even more concrete, the next shot shows Marina and Bella crawling around on the ground and imitating animals.
Throughout the film, Marina engages in similar game-like play with Bella and her father, including a series of choreographed silly walks in which she and Bella wear matching outfits as if performing a number from a musical, presented by Tsangari without much setup or context. Specifically, we never hear the rules of any of these games mentioned, and this is one way Tsangari emphasizes the hermetic insularity of Marina’s world, organized around patterns of behavior that are largely inexplicable to us. Marina’s relationship with other human beings is idiosyncratic in the extreme: she finds herself non-sexually attracted to other women and is repulsed by men, especially their penises (so much so that, as she admits to him, she imagines her father without one). This is another way in which it becomes impossible not to consider Attenberg in comparison to Dogtooth: where the latter film construed its characters’ odd, idiosyncratic behavior as the result of their parents’ degenerate perversity, Tsangari more sympathetically regards Marina’s insularity as a largely understandable defense mechanism, given additional weight in light of her coping with the impending death of her father. As with Dogtooth, our view is largely limited to the protagonist’s view of her world, but the films differ in the way Tsangari puts the question directly to us whether Marina is a dangerously asocial misfit or merely an oddball who has wisely retreated into her interior world for protection.
Tsangari blends numerous different tones throughout Attenberg, but the film is distinctly pervaded by a sense of childlike whimsy that cuts even through the darkest moments. In one scene, Marina sits besides her father’s hospital bed, and the two of them play one of their strange games, rhythmically inhaling and exhaling in a way that causes the surgical masks they are wearing to crinkle in rhythm with their breath. It’s the kind of silly, absentminded behavior we tend to engage in during moments of boredom or restlessness, but here it becomes moving and heartbreaking, a form of communication that valiantly fights to break through the silence that inevitably overwhelms us in the face of certain death. Attenberg powerfully mourns for the father figure, not just Marina’s literal father or the authority and shared lineage of one’s culture but perhaps also the God whose death modernity has long proclaimed. All of these paternal manifestations are united by their shared impotence, which has in recent years crippled Greece’s economy and government. The sadness that suffuses Attenberg through to its conclusion nonetheless belies the ritualistic torch-passing of the film’s narrative, the father making way for the daughter. Thus, in Marina we have not ultimately a misfit antihero but a new kind of heroine protagonist. Most notably, her actions throughout are explicitly anti-productive in the context of capitalism; instead, they embody non-utilitarian play at odds with (and largely indifferent to) both capitalism’s current crisis and its future. The fading away of the father thus leaves us with Marina’s open-ended future, as uncertain as Greece’s itself. In Attenberg, Tsangari links a death and a rebirth of sorts together in a way that respects both the individual and society at large without deciding the fate of either.