Evangelia Randou, left, and Ariane Labed in the movie "Attenberg." (Despina Spyrou )
The new Greek film "Attenberg" follows a young woman as she cares for her father while he struggles through the final stages of a terminal illness. A 23-year-old virgin, she finds herself coming to terms with impending grief just as she is also feeling an emergent lust for a stranger she has just met. Sex and death, old mysteries dealt with in new ways.
While those themes have long fascinated independent filmmakers, Athina Rachel Tsangari, writer and director of "Attenberg," which opened in Los Angeles Friday, puts a unique and rather odd twist on her coming-of-age story: The film features a number of sequences in which the lead character, Marina (Ariane Labed), and her lone friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), perform absurdly choreographed routines that aren't quite dances — Labed calls them "silly walks," per Monty Python — but that require the actresses to physically emulate various animal movements.
"I see it as part of the narrative," Tsangari explained, likening the scenes to a Greek chorus in classical theater, commenting on the action while existing apart from it. "They're interludes, but at the same time they are who these girls are. Some people, that's the only thing they like about the movie. They can't wait for all the dialogue parts to be over so they can see the girls moving like penguins."
As Greece has plunged into economic, political and social turmoil, a small number of films have emerged from the country that pick up the tremors of change and upheaval. "Attenberg" is the latest to display the boldly adventuresome storytelling and confident strangeness of what some have dubbed the "Greek Weird Wave."
The loosely considered movement dates back to 2009, when director Yorgos Lanthimos' "Dogtooth," an allegory of power dynamics within a family that contained startling moments of violence, sex and music, won a major prize on its debut at the Cannes Film Festival before going on to be an unexpected Academy Award nominee in the foreign language category.
"There is a conventionality and traditionalism in cinema today that I find very backward," Tsangari said during an interview in Los Angeles. "In the '60s and '70s you had people like Antonioni and Godard, or early Coppola, Cassavetes, Bresson, Fassbinder — they were all breaking the rules all the time. That was the norm. So for filmmakers right now who are trying to break the norm, the response is: 'Why are you doing that?' To me it's why the international cinema of the last 20 years has been kind of boring."
Tsangari spent a number of years living outside of Greece, earning a graduate degree in performance studies in New York and studying film in Austin, Texas — she even has a small part in "Slacker" as somebody's Greek cousin — before returning to Athens to work on projects for the 2004 Olympics. It was there she met Lanthimos and they collaborated on his 2005 film "Kinetta."
Since then, they've contributed to each other's films — Tsangari helped produced both "Dogtooth" and Lanthimos' new film, "Alps," and he appears as an actor in "Attenberg." They've crafted projects that audiences might describe in any number of ways, but boring would not be among them. (Tsangari's first film, "The Slow Business of Going," made its festival debut in 2000.)
"Attenberg" takes its title from a character's mispronunciation of the name of nature filmmaker David Attenborough. Tsangari had come to realize Attenborough's work in many ways captured the exact tone she wanted for her own film — an observant, anthropological detachment but also a tenderness and understanding.
"Attenborough was not in the first draft of the script," she said, "but I wanted to figure this girl out. It was almost instinctive to use him."
Tsangari and her actors never discussed ideas of back story or motivation — even during a three-month rehearsal process — focusing instead on movement and cadence. The idea was to allow each scene to stand on its own as what Tsangari referred to as a "module."
For Labed, a theater actress who made her screen debut in "Attenberg," Tsangari's direction "was a kind of contract between us. We would know by instinct what is right and what is not."
Tsangari was looking to create something pure and universally understandable, a story expressed physically as much as by language.
"People have left completely furious, or thinking they have seen a comedy and laughing all along, and also lots of people left crying," Tsangari said of the wide variety of responses she has seen to the film. "Because I did not make the film to go in a very specific and predictable direction, there are all these different readings of it."
Critics, though, are responding. Labed picked up a lead actress award for "Attenberg" when it premiered at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. Variety in its review described the film as a "captivating and vaguely disturbing experience."
As for the "Weird Wave" label, however, neither Tsangari nor Lanthimos is especially happy to have their work categorized in a particular way, concerned that the similarities might overshadow what makes their respective films compelling and unique.
"It's this thing of people trying to discover this new ethnic cinema. They are in a hurry to put things together in a box and say this is what it is," said Lanthimos in an interview in Toronto last fall. "That's what I think is kind of annoying. All the films that we do are different from one another."
"It's reasonable," allowed Tsangari of drawing connections between the films. "We might not like it, but it's reasonable."