It may be set on the Greek coast, but Attenberg is not set in the sort of place that many visitors to the country are familiar with. For starters the sky hardly seems to be blue, there’s not a classical ruin or beach in sight, and there aren’t even any rioters.
The film starts with out herione, Marina (Ariane Labed), learning to kiss with her friend Bella (Evangelia Randou). They may be in Greece, but it appears the French method of kissing is popular there too. One might wonder if this is some lesbian tryst (perhaps they are on the island of Lesbos?) But no, Marina is standing as far away as she can from her friend while still managing to jostle tongues. She is learning how to kiss and she’s not enjoying it. So far, so weird.
The characters in Attenberg are pretty strange and they are consigned to a particularly bleak corner of their country. The town is empty of people and industrial of aspect. A huge brown-stained factory dominates the place, apparently leaving little room humans.
Marina’s father (Vangelis Mourikis) is dying and she has to accompany him to hospital. This proximity to sickness may explain why she says she is repulsed by mens’ bodies, although she is not sexually attracted to women either. She works as a driver for the factory, and when not in the car ferrying her dad to the hospital or men to the factory down the brown streets, she watches the documentaries of David Attenborough (of Attenberg, if you pronounce it Greek style).
Possibly the key exposition in the film is Attenborough’s famous speech on encountering gorillas in the highlands of Rwanda, “if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla.” Although Marina and her dad play at being animals for a bit, it’s not clear quite how the ape-like qualities of humans inform the film.
Presumably neither apes nor gorillas are as sexually repressed as Marina, nor as detached from their lives. It’s this disengaged quality that can make the film a little hard to get into. It takes some time before the characters gain our sympathy, and the director struggles to convey the boredom and loneliness of provincial life while avoiding the very quality he is trying to convey.
Marina and Bella march about a small park, trying out strange leg movements (a sort of march/dance). Possibly they do this to pass the time, but it’s not explained. Realism isn’t the point here. Despite being puzzling, this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t gradually cast a spell. Who couldn’t like a character who says “I’m boycotting the Twentieth Century.” Her repulsion to the male body even starts to waver.
Your reaction to Attenberg may well depend on how you respond to march/dances. If you think of the idea as tiresome, self-consciously ‘quirky’ and generally self-indulgent and irritating this film may not be for you. If, on the other hand, you think the idea sounds funny, bizarre in a good way and perhaps strangely beautiful, then unusual charms of Attenberg may be up your rust-coloured street.