A kiss is just a kiss, but for Marina (Ariane Labed) in “Attenberg,” which opens at IFC Center in New York today, it’s an experience not worth repeating. In the film’s opening scene, she’s taking a lesson in how to “French” for the first time by her best friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou) – neither is a lesbian – and likens the latter’s tongue to a slug. Marina then shoves Bella to the ground and the two maul and hiss at each other like angry felines. Marina is not a curious teen but a poker-faced 23-year-old.
What with slugs and cats, it’s fitting that the patron saint of this cryptic, affecting Greek film should be David Attenborough whose seminal nature program “Life on Earth” (1979) is watched obsessively by Marina, mystified by animal behavior, and whose name is insolently mispronounced by Bella, hence the title. Sir David is seen in the celebrated scene from his show in which he comes face to face with a family of gorillas in the wild and calmly and joyfully observes, “There is more meaning, and mutual understanding, in exchanging a glance with a gorilla, than any other animal I know.”
“Meaning” and “mutual understanding” are human mysteries for Marina, who is physically repelled by men and uninterested in women, a problem that doesn’t afflict Bella, of whom Marina constantly remarks, “You little slut.” Although Athina Rachel Tsangari’s second feature, a drama limned with deadpan humor, disdains to probe Marina psychologically, it faintly implies that her sexual block was caused by the death of her mother an unspecified number of years before.
The virginal Marina seems to be the opposite of Samantha Morton’s Iris in Carine Adler’s 1997 “Under the Skin,” who plunges into self-destructive promiscuity in reaction to her mother’s death from cancer. Yet Marina’s realization that her beloved father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), initially shown undergoing radiation treatment, is going to die prompts her, too, to become sexually active – in fact, it’s Dad’s idea. A bout of table soccer and a mutual liking of Suicide’s electropunk lead to an invitation to the hotel room of the far from predatory engineer Marina ferries around in a hired Volvo and, to his mild irritation, she’s soon describing to him in detail the things they’re doing in bed. (He’s played by the director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose 2005 “Kinetta” and 2009 “Dogtooth” were produced by Tsangari and have thematic and stylistic similarities to “Attenberg.” All three films were photographed by Thimios Bakatatis.)
On the ailing Spyros’s bed, meanwhile, father and daughter caper and gibber like monkeys. Their love manifests itself not demonstratively but in impromptu word-association games that habitually degenerate into animal chatter, as if language, with its limitations, were an artificial construct that erects emotional barriers. Also beyond language are scenes punctuating the story in which Marina and Bella cavort in the street, directly imitating Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, or marching arm-in-arm as they look directly at the camera—one such scene, scored to Françoise Hardy’s “Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge,” morphs into a music video that expresses the inarticulable sadness of being an unattached twentysomething.
When Spyros tries to demystify his impending death by describing what worms will do to his body in the grave, Marina understandably becomes squeamish. They decide instead that he will be cremated, not in Greece but in Germany, and his ashes returned to Marina for burial at sea. (“I’ve never been to Hamburg,” Spyros mentions, as if looking forward to the trip.) Although Marina’s rites of passage – accepting sex and parental death into her life – coalesce, Tsangari foregrounds the young woman’s need to make the arrangement for the cremation over her burgeoning affair, a bold, counterintuitive move that resists conventional closure.
“Attenberg” is set in Aspra Spitia, on the coast of the Corinthian Gulf, a town of attractive but decaying villas that house the workers of the massive smoke-belching aluminum plant. It’s a disastrous bourgeois experiment that grieves Spyros, an architect partly culpable for its creation: “We built an industrial colony on top of sheep pens and thought we were making a revolution,” he bitterly tells Marina as they look down on the town.
His disappointment and his dying, of course, signify the death of hope amid Greece’s financial crisis. Marina’s sexual awakening, redolent of a new realism and maturity, offers tentative hope of rejuvention. It may take a while. The film ends on images of ash flying in the wind and trucks driving to and from an industrial red earthwork, the animal and the organic seemingly in abeyance.
Below: "Attenberg" trailer