The opposing yet strongly connected forces of Freudian buddies Eros (“passionate love”) and Thanatos (“death”) are reluctantly explored by the femme protag of “Attenberg,” the impressive sophomore feature of Greek scribe-helmer Athina Rachel Tsangari (“The Slow Business of Going”). This minimalistic, rigorously controlled study of the slow awakening of an emotionally stunted 23-year-old girl has much in common with the recent “Dogtooth,” which Tsangari associate-produced (and whose helmer, Yorgos Lanthimos, has a small role here). Like that pic, “Attenberg” remains a captivating and vaguely disturbing experience throughout, and a similar international rollout is likely.
The film provocatively opens with a juicy tongue-wrestling match between blonde protag Marina (Ariane Labed), and her best — and only — friend, brunette Bella (Evangelia Randou, from Lanthimos’ “Kinetta”). Medium closeup shot, framed against a whitewashed wall, is held throughout the girls’ makeout session and technical discussion, as Bella teaches Marina how to kiss (the latter is disgusted, likening Bella’s tongue to a slug). A verbal fight turns into a spitting match before Tsangari cuts to a wide shot as the girls get down on all fours and start hissing at each other like animals.
In this simple pre-title sequence, the Greece- and Texas-based filmmaker has already established the film’s plain yet rigorous aesthetics and some of its major themes. As in “Dogtooth,” questions of education and sex are explored and often disturbingly linked, while people intimidated by or frustrated with human social constructs revert to animalistic behavior. Visuals are pared-down but precise, with medium closeups framing the protags in a human way, focusing on facial expressions, while wider shots take the body language of the entire human animal into consideration.
Pic transpires in a stagnant industrial town on the seaside. Marina confesses to her weary father (Vangelis Mourikis) that she finds women more interesting than men, though not physically. However, the girl loathes the idea of someone sticking something inside her and tells her dad she can’t ever imagine him even having a penis.
Marina always accompanies her terminally ill dad to the hospital for checkups, and otherwise spends much of her time hanging out with Bella, with whom she performs bizarre impromptu dances (these yield the pic’s most Actors Studio-style moments, though they’re well performed, as both actresses have a background in dance).
“Attenberg” certainly works as a wacky, decidedly arthouse coming-of-age narrative, but a more intellectual exploration of various Freudian concepts is also there for the taking. Marina’s not entirely happy discovery of kissing, sex and passionate love (all ultimately derived from an animalistic urge to procreate), are coupled here with its opposite: death (which, in biological terms, procreation is meant to overcome). The first close experiences of both, Tsangari seems to suggest, are unpleasant but necessary rites of passage on the way to adulthood. And how humans deal with sex and death is what sets them apart from the other species that roam the planet.
Again as in “Dogtooth,” the thesping has a somewhat mechanical quality that is neither theatrical nor natural. Tsangari fully exploits the mesmerizing features of Labed (who won the Venice jury’s actress prize). Randou, who looks like a Greek cousin of Charlotte Gainsbourg, is also strong in a less developed role, while Mourikis is also impressive.
Further craft contributions are all low-key but very precise. Title is a reference to Marina’s mispronunciation of the surname of David Attenborough, whose nature docus she watches compulsively.