Nothing but Mammals
Kiva Reardon on Attenberg

We are apparently living through the death of cinema. Of course, it bears noting that it’s been a long struggle for the medium, which has had several close calls since around 1895—talkies, television, home video, the farewell to celluloid. Now, in an age where digital is sometimes considered synonymous with the end of cinematic innovation, discussing film’s future can feel like attending a wake—fondly recalling what was, as opposed to considering what’s to come. Naturally, the decline of 35mm will affect cinema’s history, shaping viewing and preservation practices, be they streaming over projecting films and issues of digital storage. Yet the aforementioned dour outlook often clouds judgments. Film, despite its supposed continual brushes with the infinite, continues to rise again. In the past ten years there have been many films that left me excited—from Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum to Tony Scott’s Unstoppable—for the future of the medium. It is Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg, however, which most perplexes and moves me in this moment, when cinema supposedly starves for innovation.

Attenberg largely eludes classification. Tsangari describes the film best in Cinema Scope as “Western + science fiction + screwball comedy + Greek tragedy. It’s also none of these things, of course.” Its plot is sparse, but is most simply described as a coming-of-age story set in modern-day Greece, following the sheltered and emotionally stunted Marina (Ariane Labed), living with her cancer-stricken father, Sypros (Vangelis Mourikis). Like him, their post-boom industrial town is slowly dying. Amidst this decay, guided by her only friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), Marina begins to explore her sexuality with a visiting engineer, played by Tsangari’s sometime collaborator Giorgos Lanthimos (the director of Dogtooth and Alps). Seemingly conventional when reduced to such a summary, Attenberg transcends any generic boundaries by eschewing spoken language, centering on animalistic bodily performances. Marina, Bella, and Sypros occasionally hiss like cats or scratch themselves like monkeys. The strangeness of their behavior can be attributed to the screwball part of Tsangari’s equation, but it is also profoundly affecting. The sparse use of language—which is further reflected in the simple mise-en-scène—creates a film experience that foregrounds the visual and demands to be read with something closer to intuition.

A video artist who crossed over to film and has become a cornerstone of the emerging New Greek Cinema, Tsangari has examined the distantiating nature of modern experience. Her debut, The Slow Business of Going (2000), follows a cyborg who records random encounters, reflecting our tendency to transcribe our lives as opposed to making meaning from them. (“I feel kind of homesick,” says cyborg Petra Going. “But I don’t know for what or for where.”) The Capsule, her most recent short, exhibits a highly abstracted aesthetic that speaks to her involvement as a producer on films like Dogtooth and Alps, and combines illustration and video to create an alternate world that centers on a cult-like group of women. Like Slow Business, Attenberg focuses on the difficulty of relations between people and their environment; but instead of wallowing in the despair of dislocated human interaction it revels in unorthodox forms of connectivity.

Attenberg opens with Marina and Bella facing each other against a white wall. The latter leans forward, extending her tongue. Mirroring the action, Marina does the same, stiffly tilting until they connect in what might be construed as a kiss. The act, however, is devoid of sensuality, more exploratory than romantically motivated. The moment recalls an animal encounter of inquisitive otherness, predicated not on language or social norms but the sensational curiosity of bodily contact. As the above description of the cold open suggests, in putting the body first Tsangari’s film operates differently from those that are more commonly motivated by dialogue or language. One may refer to a strong “physical performance” or compliment an actor on a transformation, but in the popular consciousness the spoken word lives on. This suggests less about linguistic specificity—film slogans such as “I’ll be back” translate into all languages—than what constitutes the human on a basic level: what sets us apart from most other inhabitants of this planet is language. The limitation it puts on the spoken word is what creates Attenberg’s perplexing, even surrealist, nature.

Its opening credits sequence—shots of an empty town bearing marks of humanity such as a sprinkler watering a well-manicured lawn, backed by the throbbing bass of post-punk band Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”—doesn’t function to situate us. Instead of establishing where Attenberg will unfold, they seem to be creating an environment that should be entered into and experienced rather than explicitly understood. This sensation is sustained throughout the film, as what verbal exchanges remain are brief, and characters rarely vocalize their feelings. Attempting to open up to Bella, Marina removes her shirt, exposing her shoulder blades, which she begins to pop in and out of joint. It’s a freakish confessional, and it encapsulates the core of the film: it’s one thing to hear someone describe herself as double-jointed, another to see it in practice. The film is like a response to Eliza Doolittle’s lament in My Fair Lady, “Show me!” Unbound by linguistic specificity and emotional or narrative referents, these moments become entry points of limitless meaning into the film.

The tension in Attenberg rests in the fact that many of Marina’s experiences are predicated on death: her father, her city, and, to a degree, her friendship with Bella are all dying. Her becoming as a person seems to be at risk of being stunted by the fatalism that surrounds her. Spoken language is bound to linearity—one word follows the next. In contrast, bodily communication offers an ambiguous yet inviting mode of storytelling, one that does not dictate but rather asks the viewer to change the way we relate to the screen itself, through our own bodies. In the film’s final sequence we see Marina and Bella from a distance walking across the frame at a construction site. Marina mounts her scooter and Bella gets into her car and they drive off as Mareva Galanter’s “Le temps d’amour” begins to play. The camera maintains a static shot as trucks working on some unknown project continue to move in the background. The song finishes, but the industrial sounds continue as we wait for what comes next; after several minutes small white credits appear over the image. Like the opening kiss, the final image is an expression of going boldly, if uncertainly, forward. To bring it back to cinema, this is no wake, but a new awakening.