Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 21, 2011 3:43 pm 
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Sex and death and primate observation

From the producer of Dogtooth comes this hip, Nouvellel Vague-influenced and largely insufferable study of a dying man and at a Greek town on the sea and his daughter's belated and self-indulgent introduction to sex. The younger man who assists in this introduction is remarkably patient with the young woman's incessant talkiness and gaucherie; indeed the dying man, reputedly an innovative architect, is remarkably patient with his daughter as well. We should be so patient. Giorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, which has been much admired, was highly annoying and self-conscious like this film too, but its schtick succeeded, if you didn't look too close, anyway, because of its boldness and conceptual force. The idea of adult children so isolated from ordinary life they can be fed a whole new vocabulary and set of concepts is arresting and thought-provoking, despite its artificiality.

But here Tsangari, as Howard Feinstein wrote recently a roundup of the New Directors/New Films 2011 series in Filmmaker magazine, has produced an "overly studied" film, most glaringly so in its constant inserts of symmetrical travelling shots of two young women walking arm and arm up and down a crunchy stone pathway kicking their feet in the same direction. What do these sequences mean? They mean that this is semi-feminist in its outlook, perhaps. But most of all they mean this is an art film and doesn't want you to forget it.

Attenberg is an intentionally sui generis spelling of the family name of Sir Richard Attenborough, whose intimate filming of gorillas (as dangerously up-close as Herzog's Grizzly Man) is glimpsed on the Tube, and alternates with a man and woman jumping up and down on a bed doing a passable imitation of a pair of very animated primates. A young woman also screeches like a bird while lying on a bed watching an unseen nature film, perhaps also by Attenborough. The implication is that the film examines human behavior with the detachment of an observer of animal life. This is not a claim that is justified by the film itself.

Towards the end, the film shifts to a focus on arrangements for the architect's cremation. The process cannot legally be performed in Greece, so the family must pay to have the body sent abroad, incinerated, and then returned in an urn. A scene in which the daughter makes arrangements for all this at a posh commercial establishment is rather droll, and perhaps authentic. The final boat trip with the urn when the ashes are sifted into the sea has a certain stern beauty. Not everything in Attenberg, then, is totally annoying. Obviously Tsangari is sophisticated and confident as a filmmaker, as is her colleague Lanthiomos. The Variety review of Attenberg by Boyd van Hoeij ( written when the film debuted at Sundance this January) calls this an "impressive" sophomore effort and explains for us that its purpose is to show how "The opposing yet strongly connected forces of Freudian buddies Eros ('passionate love') and Thanatos ('death') " are "reluctantly explored" by the "femme protagonist." Yes and of course Eros and Thanatos are Greek words and this is a Greek film. The Variety review also explains to us that some of the more manic and absurd on screen antics are explained as the way "while people intimidated by or frustrated with human social constructs revert to animalistic behavior." Van Hoeij concludes that Attenberg "certainly works as a wacky, decidedly arthouse coming-of-age narrative." Wacky and decidedly arthouse it certainly is, but "works"? It "works" if its self-indulgent mannerisms appeal to you and the Eros-Thanatos themes seem to you to cohere with the arch animal-observation theme.

The film features Ariane Labed as the daughter, Giorgos Lanthimos as the dying architect father, Vangelis Mourikis as the willing sexual initiator, and Evangelia Randou as the daughter's friend who teachers her to tongue-kiss and struts up and down the stone path with her.

Seen and reviewed as part of the New Directors/New Films series presented March 23-April 3, 2011 by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

ND/NF screenings:
2011-03-31 | 6:00 PM | MoMA
2011-04-02 | 1:00 PM | FSLC

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