The official selection from Greece for this year’s foreign language film Academy Award, Attenberg, is a beautifully shot, strikingly humorous, and off-kilter coming-of-age story, now out on DVD. The title comes from the mispronunciation of Sir David Attenborough’s name by Bella (Evangelia Randou), the best friend of Marina (Ariane Labed). Marina, infatuated with Attenborough’s British wildlife programs, relates more to the primates on screen than to the humans in her coastal, factory town.
Twenty-three years old, Marina has never kissed a boy, let alone been in a relationship. She spends her days working as a driver for a local factory, with her terminally ill father (Vangelis Mourikis) after work, or hanging out with Bella. She fears she may have no sexual desire at all, especially when compared to her much more experienced best friend. When Marina finds herself attracted to an out-of-towner (Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos), Marina begins questioning her ideas about love, sex, and her relationship with Bella. Simultaneously, as her father becomes more and more ill, Marina confronts how her life will be without him.
Perhaps what stands out the most is the relationship between Marina and Bella. Surprisingly, their friendship is more visual-based than anything else. While the two have a few intimate conversations, their physical interactions are wonderful. Scenes of them wandering around town dressed in almost identical dresses become welcome little vignettes throughout the film. In one, they reenact the “Silly Walks” sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus in almost complete synchronicity. In another they stroll down a block arm in arm at twilight singing a French pop song. In yet another they pretend to be wild animals. It’s a wonderful way to convey how much time these two must spend together and how much they must talk without the audience having to hear it all. It’s an eccentric friendship fully formed and believable through mostly silent, but intricate, action.
There is also stillness to the film. Often shots lack movement, so much so that they look like arresting photographs, though reflecting a lot of emotion. This may be best seen in director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s use of stark white backgrounds, including one which opens the film and serves as a background for the introduction of Marina and Bella. This emptiness of space and color is also abundant in scenes taking place in the hospital where Marina’s father is being treated and in the identical white houses that dot the town. Expressing a theme of nature versus industry, Attenberg subtly depicts a world overwrought by austere buildings and factories.
Attenberg is certainly an unconventional look at a young woman’s move into adulthood and her exploration of sexuality, both visually and in terms of character. While the pacing may seem slow to some, I enjoyed the scenes of silence and stillness as much, maybe even more, than those that pushed the plot forward. As unconventional as the film looks and feels as a whole, the eclectic soundtrack is another reason to check it out. It includes songs by protopunk band Suicide (Marina’s favorite), singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, and the Françoise Hardy’s song “Le Temps de l’Amour” (which was also recently used, quite prominently, in Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom).