It might seem unfair to compare Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s innovative sophomore feature “Attenberg” to Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.” The latter is a polished Hollywood excursion starring one of the most famous actors in the world, while “Attenberg” hails from a marginalized cinema and sports a vastly different storytelling mentality.
However, with the memory of last year’s “The Descendants” amplified by its recent prominence in Oscar season just as “Attenberg” finally arrives in U.S. theaters, I find it hard to ignore the connections between the two movies. Although they deal with similar material in fundamentally separate ways, seen together they illuminate the supreme originality of Tsangari’s approach as well as the familiarity of Payne’s.
First of all, both involve a young woman coming to grips with the imminent death of a parent. In “The Descendants,” that would be Shailene Woodley’s moody teen coping with her comatose mom. “Attenberg” offers up 23-year-old Marina (Ariane Labed), a preternaturally restrained woman who lives with her ailing father in a seaside community he helped build years earlier.
While “The Descendants” used its luxurious Hawaiian scenery to contrast serenity with the harsher details of a secular world, “Attenberg” superimposes Marina’s burgeoning grief with the soothing monotony of her seaside community. (The austere set of homes form a failed utopian endeavor that her architect father helped construct.) And both movies conclude at the sad finale they were headed toward from the start — namely, on a boat with a jar of ashes.
Anyone perturbed by the unadventurous execution of “The Descendants” will find the prospects of “Attenberg,” a lovely oddity that includes song-and-dance numbers and charming irreverence of the nouvelle vogue variety, infinitely more rewarding. But that doesn’t mean you must harbor disdain for “The Descendants” in order to love “Attenberg.” Not being a “Descendants” hater myself, I draw the connection here because Payne’s film has a dogged reverence for classical storytelling that “Attenberg” routinely shatters.
The movie’s title comes from a mispronunciation of David Attenborough, the nature documentarian whom Marina watches on television with great interest and uses as her filter for understanding the world (the best she can muster is “Atten-boog”). Taking cues from her idol, she hides her emotions by attempting to read the world on the basis of primal instinct. Evaluating her love for her father, she says, “I think of you as a man without a penis.” With her friend Bella (Evangelia Randou), she frequently skips and hops down the sidewalk in a series of animalistic movements that surface throughout the movie to elaborate on her insistence on living a carefree existence, or at least one where behavior speaks louder than monologues.
So it goes throughout “Attenberg,” which finds Marina dealing with her dad’s debilitating state and exploring her emotional maturity more through behavior than conversation. During her first sexual experience with a traveling engineer (Yorgos Lanthimos, director of the subversive Greek hit “Dogtooth”), she speaks analytically about her physical attraction until he cuts her off. This is one situation where Sir Attenborough can’t help her out.
The emotional core of “Attenerg” stems not from the particulars of the situation but rather Tsangari’s focus on her characters’ playful mentality and the cold reality that challenges them. A scene that finds Marina and her father hopping up and down on his bed and whooping like monkeys takes on a strangely humanistic dimension when you consider his encroaching fate.
With its persistent inventiveness and a lack of unearned sentimentality, the movie provides an antidote to a lot of lazily produced dramas about death, American or otherwise. Its style is directly connected to its themes with a persistent inventiveness. “It’s soothing, all this uniformity,” Marina says about her environment, but it’s the lack of uniformity that makes “Attenberg” such a welcome discovery that one hopes will spawn many descendants in Tsangari’s career.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Attenberg” has been a hit on the festival circuit ever since it premiered at Venice and won an acting award for Labed, and continued gaining acclaim at Toronto and New Directors/New Flims. Strand Releasing opens it Friday at IFC Center, where it’s likely to perform strongly due to the steadily positive word of mouth it has gathered over the past year.