Thursday, 1 September 2011

A zed and two question marks: "Attenberg"

The Greeks have lost their marbles, and their bearings, and at some point along the way gained a film industry of sorts. After last year's breakthrough Dogtooth, in which grown adults raised as children came to revolt against their keepers, there now follows Attenberg, which offers the sight of these kidults acting as animals. Maybe this zoo mentality is what happens when an ancient civilisation gets reduced to ruins and has to rebuild from scratch; one might wonder whether it was capitalism that was responsible for bankrupting the nation's elders (financially, morally) and infantilising their offspring. I'm not nearly so sure these films are as critical as that idle speculation implies, but it's evident from news events that jungle law of a kind has held sway in Greece in recent times, which is where Attenberg (its title derived from the heroine's mispronunciation of David Attenborough's surname) comes in: there may well be a need to have this wild and wayward behaviour explained away, which in turn has given rise to a new generation of cinematic anthropologists.

Marina (Ariane Labed, possessor of a fragile, mournful beauty) is a virginal 23-year-old living with an ailing father in an underpopulated resort or restaurant; the film's sense of location is sketchy, but - dumped between two islands - it has the rocky beaches and quarries and unpromising, industrial dead-zone feel of certain Welsh caravan parks in the off-season. In between long stretches of inactivity and non-eventfulness, our heroine seeks lessons in love and sex from a female colleague (Evangelia Randou), watches nature documentaries, makes taboo talk with daddy before he dies, and then decides to throw herself, clumsily and not altogether successfully, at the engineer she's been obliged to drive around between jobs. (The engineer is played by Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth's director, confirming the link between the two films.)

Despite the critical success, and an unexpectedly leftfield Academy Award nomination, I can't have been the only one to have found Dogtooth at least as strained as it was genuinely strange, and Attenberg arrives as proof this is the direction this new Greek cinema is determined to go in. There are, to put it bluntly, a lot of quirks for quirk's sake here: despite the latter's illness, Marina and her dad expend a lot of energy aping the creatures they observe on the TV, which may just be making a point about imitative behaviour (but may just as well not); the two young women break into French chansons, or a sporadic penguin-like shuffle, as though the writer-director, Athina Rachel Tsangari, were determined to resurrect all those choreographed tics that some people used to find irritating about Hal Hartley films, or which everybody on the planet continues to find annoying about physical theatre.

I think Tsangari's eye is stronger than her voice as yet: she composes neat, diverting vignettes with garden sprinklers, CT scans and cactus leaves, but you struggle to comprehend what this picture is being used to tell you, exactly. (As in Dogtooth, the script majors in clever-clever word play, though there's even less narrative framework here.) Like the infantilised adults they side with, I'm not sure even the filmmakers, emerging from a still-inchoate industry at a time of utter financial chaos, have themselves the maturity to know - which is perhaps the films (as a pair) remain so stubbornly abstract. Attenberg leaves us with the image of its heroines spitting out of a window overlooking their nowhere town: if Tsangari's film is intended as a social critique - rather than just the free-floating question mark it most commonly resembles - then that's really as sophisticated as it gets.

Attenberg opens in selected cinemas nationwide, and is also available to view on demand, from tomorrow.

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