Curious animal attraction
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Mar. 30, 2012
Nature documentaries transmit a certain luminescent solace that renders viewers practically hypnotized. The protagonist at the center of "Attenberg" knows the feeling: 23-year-old Marina (Ariane Labed) trades human interaction for afternoons spent with Richard Attenborough and his gorillas.
But this Greek film feels like a nature documentary in its own right. The rapt audience watches this creature in her natural habitat, and although she looks like a familiar species, her actions are foreign. She's unpredictable - distant one moment and pouncing the next.
Marina's oddball tendencies and arrested development announce themselves immediately. The film opens with a kissing tutorial in which Marina's worldly best friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), offers a hands-on demonstration. The juvenile expression "tonsil hockey" comes to mind, as the two do clumsy battle with their tongues; the scene is anything but erotic. Finally, Marina brings the squirm-inducing scene to a halt, saying, "I'm going to throw up."
Even as she finds humans - and their many parts - fascinating, she shrinks from physical contact and insulates herself from relationships. She appears to connect with only one person, her father, who is dying of cancer. When she isn't with her dad at the hospital or working as a driver in her deserted seaside home town, she spends time in front of the television, emulating the birdcalls and monkey noises. She occasionally leaps around on all fours like a crazed panther.
A grown woman acting like an animal is indeed a curiosity. So is Marina's filter-free form of interpersonal communication, which is apparent when she crosses paths with a visiting engineer who shares her love of foosball.
Although the film follows a set of routines - driving, hospital visits, television watching - each commonplace action has some weird twist. There is a recurring sequence in which Marina and Bella are shown wandering side-by-side in matching dresses. At one point, the two women walk impossibly slowly, discussing strange dreams ("Seeing genitals in your sleep is a bad omen," Bella admits), while later episodes find the two doing a choreographed skipping dance and then singing a French song in unison.
Writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari produced 2009's "Dogtooth," another captivating chronicle of abnormality. At times "Attenberg" conveys the same feeling of vague dark comedy, and its camera angles are similarly inventive, letting the characters move in and out of the frame rather than following the action. Yet "Attenberg" has something "Dogtooth" didn't: emotional depth. As strange as she is, Marina is about to lose her father - who's the one thing keeping her from complete loneliness - and that tragedy feels tangible amid the surreal events.
Part of the film's success comes from Labed's performance as Marina, who infuses all that weirdness with a barely there vulnerability. In her first foray into acting, the actress took home the Venice Film Festival's Volpi Cup for her performance. Maybe it's that subtle emotion that separates man from beast. Either way, it's just the thing to elevate an oddity to a more engaging experience.
Contains nudity, frank discussions about normally taboo subject matter, sex scenes and strong language. In Greek with English subtitles.