Until about a year ago references to Greece would conjure up images of beaches, sunsets and ruins. It's a long time since Byron went to fight for its freedom. Of course it has been touched by various wars, had its coup d'etats, military rule and revolutions, but by and large Greece has been synonymous with ageless beauty, olives and the good life. For now, however, that image has been displaced. Greece is now a front line on the global economic battleground. Middle class people riot and sleep in the streets. Politicians and financiers regularly speculate about its demise. Economic journalists head there to reveal the shape of a dystopian European future.
In retrospect, Dogtooth, Lanthimos' brilliant movie, seems to have been giving out warning signs. Within a walled garden, all was not what it seemed. Something was going horribly wrong in the Greek state and the chickens were coming home to roost. Tsangari, who has spent a good deal of time in the States, is credited as associate producer on Dogtooth. Attenberg is being marketed in Dogtooth's slipstream and it too bucks against the previous bucolic images of the country.
The film is set in a coastal resort, but it's a coastal resort in Winter. As Morrissey observed, coastal resorts in Winter can be depressing. Even more so when your father is dying of cancer, as is the case with the film's virginal heroine, Marina, played by the impressive Ariane Labed, who somewhat curiously happens to be French, not that you'd notice. Marina has issues. She’s 23 and she’s never had sex. She practices kissing with her on-off friend, Bella. She imagines her father naked. Together they watch David Attenborough shows (hence the film’s curious title) and sometimes act out as gorillas. When she finally goes to bed with a man, she talks so much it puts him off. This makes for one of the funniest sex scenes ever filmed. It’s almost as though Marina is inhabiting the flip side of the Greek Summer idyll. Her father is an architect who would appear to have helped develop the resort. But the view from the apartments is always grey and unwelcoming.
There’s a hint of the dysfunctional US indie drama here, with a strong female twist. Death is coming and Marina is going to have to cope with her grief. However, in contrast to a North American sensibility, there’s no bittersweet pay-off. Once her father’s ashes have been scattered, the film switches to a long static shot, of little apparent relevance, in what looks like a cement factory. There’s a feeling that the ending is less moving than we would want it to be; but that is also exactly right. In an echo of Dogtooth’s harsh edges, Tsangari flirts with the themes of sentimentality but then resists them, reluctant to give the audience what it wants.
Which is not to say that the film is not warm and sensitively told. Perhaps the one adjective it resists from that compendium of adjectives which describe films which deal with death and sex, is “human”. One gets the impression that Tsangari would prefer the adjective “animal”. Not in a nasty sense, but in the sense that our assumed notions of evolution and progress aren’t quite as valid as we like to think. We manage to make the simple things in life, like sex and dying, incredibly complicated. Which means that the supposed virtues of ‘civilization’ are not as impressive as its marketing.
There are occasional longeurs in Tsangari’s film. But its so full of unlikely and brilliant moments that they don’t matter. Whether the Greek new wave is showing us the future of the European dream or not is open to debate. But it is producing some remarkable cinema.