Venice (In Competition) – Sex and death are generally agreed to be the two towering topics for artists to try and address in their output. And, as Paul Martin finds out, both are present in this idiosyncratic Greek drama, with a young woman displaying revulsion at the former and her father proving remarkably composed about the rapidly-approaching latter.
Okay, so while I saw Attenberg in Venice, I'm actually typing this review up back on the chilly shores of Blighty, with the benefit of a post-festival hindsight which tells me that Ariane Labed, who plays the lead role of 23-year-old Marina, took the prize for best actress on Saturday night, beating out the big name likes of Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams and Catherine Deneuve. Only time will tell if this triumph will be the first step forward on what will eventually be a Cotillard-like career ascension for Labed, but to have emerged the victor from a Venice that will be recalled as providing sterling showcase for a string of strong performances from the fairer sex is quite a feat in itself.
Labed's turn is certainly an impressive and charismatic one, she investing charm in the isolated Marina, a young woman whose only real relationships at the outset of Athina Rachel Tsangari's film are with her slowly-expiring architect father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), and best friend and partner in play, Bella (Evangelia Randou). That play occupies no small amount of screen time in Attenberg, as the thick-as-thieves duo indulge in an ongoing pantomime of their own creation. Tsangari serves up semi-whimsical scenes of them discussing “prick-trees”, indulging in tandem penguin waddles, and in the pre-credits opening, rubbing tongues - this oral interaction swiftly descending into a raspberry-blowing duel, before concluding with the girls dropping down to the ground on all-fours and snarling at each other like panthers guarding their respective patches of turf.
Greek-born writer-director Tsangari was part of the Austin movie-making scene for several years, helping to found that city's Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, and these ostensibly eccentric interludes are very much in the spirit of the American indies of the late-'80s/early-'90s, where any on-screen expression of creativity was seen as striking a positive note of defiance in the face of Hollywood homogenisation. How well they play in an age where the barriers between mainstream and indie have become far more porous is another question, with the zany behaviour of Marina and Bella sometimes coming off as irritating and indulgent as that of a melodramatically pretentious teenager; for example, as in the scene where Marina watches a documentary on sea birds and promptly launches into a flapping, cawing impersonation of said creatures (wildlife docs are a continual thread running through Attenberg, the title itself being a corruption of the surname of British TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough). It is one of a number of irksome moments which hint less at a refreshingly experimental style from Tsangari and more a dislikeable art school self-satisfaction.
Which is not to say that all of the quirkiness misses the mark. The camera of cinematographer Thimios Bakatatakis delivers some eye-catching imagery, such as repeated shots of locations pointedly devoid of human inhabitants, and a close-up of Marina's bare shoulder blades pumping like the pistons at the industrial site near the town where she, Bella and Spyros live. A new arrival at this site is an out-of-town stranger played by filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (on whose 2009 Cannes prize-winner, Dogtooth, both Tsangari and Bakatatakis worked), an engineer and, like Marina, a fan of avant-garde noiseniks Suicide. It is he who effects a cessation in Marina's staunch disgust at male-female sexual intercourse, her halting induction into the pleasures of the flesh being chronicled with an unadorned awkwardness.
With the life energies of the phlegmatic Spyros ebbing away over the course of the film, a cloud of gloom hangs over the film. Though he is calm about his impending death, even going so far as to arrange for the disposal of his own body, the bond between him and Marina gives the impression that her escape with Bella into the world of the imagination is, at least partly, a defence mechanism against the pain of watching her dad becoming progressively sicker. What is interesting however is how adeptly Tsangari balances this downbeat storyline against the episodes of indie playfulness, the two strands actually working strangely successfully together, and forming a whole entity more engaging than the sum of its constituent parts.
Rating on a scale of 5 silly walks: 3
Release Date: TBC
Directed by: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Screenplay by: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Starring: Ariane Labed, Evangelia Randou, Vangelis Mourikis, Yorgos Lanthimos
Running time: 95 minutes