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VENICE — A Greek film with style and verve, writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s second feature, Attenberg, is an offbeat coming-of-age tale that follows a young woman of 23 as she navigates between her father’s terminal illness and her first, not-so-great sexual experiences.
In the lead, newcomer Ariane Labed has a fresh, low-key eagerness that earned her best actress kudos at Venice. But many viewers will have trouble getting a grip on this strange little film, even if strong critical notices should help it swim to foreign art houses.
Tsangari, who directed The Slow Business of Going and worked in production on curious indies like Dogtooth, sets the story in a bleak industrial town that unhappily overlooks the Greek sea. Life there revolves around the factories that dominate the visuals, though the action takes place on muddy roads, in a modern hospital and at a small hotel for business travelers, where Marina (Labed) hangs out with her best friend Bella (Evangelia Randou). Both girls do odd jobs as they wait for the future to arrive.
In a memorable opener that makes viewers sit up straight, the experienced Bella tries to teach Marina to tongue kiss. But she doesn’t like it, and the girls switch to playing animals with each other, like little children. The deliberate ambiguity of the sexual message keeps the audience guessing, especially after Marina tells her father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) she finds women more interesting than men — though not as sex partners — and hates the thought of physical intercourse with a man.
Her frank, uninhibited sex talk with her good-looking Dad even includes a question about incest taboos, at which point he ends the discussion.
With her tomboy attitude, Marina comes across as a girl belatedly growing into adult sexuality. Her mother apparently is dead and her father is dying; she really has no choice but to go forward, even if it means experimenting with a mismatched young engineer (Yorgos Lanthimos). The sex scenes are tasteful but quite frank.
Alternating with Marina’s efforts to lose her virginity is that other theme: death. Spyros takes his chemo sessions with a philosophical shrug and instructs Marina on getting him cremated, not an easy thing to do in Greece. Their matter-of-fact talks are smart and never morbid, despite their underlying emotional edge, and Tsangari’s light but serious handling of sex and death themes is a major achievement.
This Eros-Thanatos combination is whimsically visualized in the nature documentaries of David Attenborough (or Attenberg, as his name is mispronounced) that Marina loves to watch. They suggest that death is just part of nature — which her father might agree with — and sex means no more than following one’s instincts. But evidently, there’s a bit more to life. If, in several scenes, the characters get down on all fours and imitate animals, Marina and Bella also join hands in the street and dance bizarre duets for the sheer pleasure of being alive and human.
Labed’s kooky-realistic performance has a certain amount of self-consciousness in it, which doesn’t detract from her screen presence. The other actors are barely there, with the exception of the excellent Mourikis as the architect-father soon to become ashes.
Helping the wackier parts of the script to work is Thimios Bakatakis‘ careful, precise camera and good editing work.
Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production: Haos Films, Faliro House Prods., Boo Prods.
Cast: Ariane Labed, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Director-screenwriter: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Executive producers: Christos Konstantakopoulos
Producer: Maria Hatzakou, Yorgos Lanthimos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Iraklis Mavroidis, Angelos Venetis
Director of photography: Thimios Bakatakis
Production designer: Dafni Kalogianni
Costumes: Thanos Papastergiou, Vassilia Rozana
Editors: Matt Johnson, Sandrine Cheyrol
Sales: Match Factory
No rating, 95 minutes
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