Over the past few years, Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth has sparked much curiosity in both dedicated and casual filmgoers. While somewhat of an unlikely word-of-mouth success, it’s also a logical one, since Dogtooth, despite possessing an overall vibe that brings to mind the “cold” and “clinical” (i.e. “not fun at all”) qualities of Michael Haneke’s work, is also recognizably “weird.” It’s about a family whose parental figures have forbade their two daughters and son to venture beyond the fence surrounding their house. The children are taught incorrect meanings of words, and any exposure to the outside world is met with a convoluted explanation. Situations and conversations that might otherwise be completely mundane are constructed in accordance with these limitations, which also leads to several shocking images of sex and violence.
In short, Lanthimos constructs a fantasy environment that is disturbingly within the realm of plausibility, allowing the film to be inherently “unlike any that you have ever seen.” It’s not quite an unrelenting, borderline sadistic viewing experience, since the weirdness factor outweighs the bleakness of these characters’ existences. You could show it to a friend and have a swell time and possibly a few laughs. And even if your friend ends up thinking that you have the tastes of a creepy snuff film loving pervert, such a reaction would be nothing compared to a similar one inspired by Markus Schleinzer’s Michael (Austria), another recent matter-of-fact study of sociopathy that is no less entertaining and darkly humorous than Dogtooth, yet probably a lot more unpleasant for many.
Naturally, the buzz surrounding Michael doesn’t approach that which Dogtooth has managed to acquire. Not only is it disturbing, but it’s also a bit too close to real life for comfort, lacking Dogtooth‘s shield of fantasy and quirk. Michael is just one example of a recent film that has brought to mind Dogtooth while not managing to carry over much of its peculiarly broad appeal. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is another, although the connection is a bit more direct. Tsangari also hails from Lanthimos’s home country, with her work being lumped in with the Dogtooth-initiated “Greek weird wave.” She co-produced Lanthimos’s film, a favor which he returned by acting in hers. And yes, Attenberg has been met with a largely positive reception, but festival recognition and decent reviews haven’t been enough to distance it from Dogtooth‘s shadow.
There are certainly similarities between the two films. As much as Tsangari and Lanthimos might dispel the media’s compulsion to view their films as part of a “wave,” they do share an affinity for portraying modernity as sterile and desolate. And the characters that they place within these ordinary settings tend to have far from conventional relationships with them, which results in plenty of images and dialogue exchanges that are indeed pretty bizarre. But while Dogtooth is about characters trapped in a carefully manufactured world, Attenberg‘s 23-year-old protagonist Marina (Ariane Labed) is exiled by her own idiosyncratic values and interests.
There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot going on in the seaside industrial town where Marina lives, yet she still comes across as an outsider. The only pleasures worth pursuing are found in the music of Suicide, the nature documentaries of Sir David Attenborough, and the time spent with either Bella (Evangelia Randou), her friend, or Spyros (Vangelis Mounkis), her father. They have conversations about sex, an area that Marina has little experience with or knowledge about, and often end up playfully reenacting the sounds and movements of wild animals. However, a bond develops between Marina and an engineer (Lanthimos) stationed in the town, and notions of sexuality begin to seem less and less foreign, all while her father’s life is slowly claimed by an unspecified terminal illness. Gradually, the impressively principled Marina begins to seem not quite so immune to change.
Reading that plot synopsis over, it seems to suggest that Attenberg is less oppressive art-house film and more offbeat coming-of-age story…which is true. If one is going to talk about Tsangari’s and Lanthimos’s films being part of a “weird wave,” it is crucial to note that the “weirdness” serves a different function in each. Dogtooth is full of jarring moments that are simultaneously alienating and exciting, and once the ending rolls around, any sense of hope the viewer feels probably isn’t for the characters. Attenberg, on the other hand, shows human relationships in a warmer light. Marina might be a character whose insular social life cuts her off from everything outside of it, but as circumstantial shifts set in during the second half, she adapts to them. And she does so without grand breakdowns or speeches, as Tsangari hands the talking over to facial expressions, movements, and silences. It’s all quietly moving in a way that Dogtooth doesn’t really even try to be. If that translates to “more unremarkable” for some, then so be it, but Attenberg deserves better than outright dismissal for not being “weird” enough.
– Garret Kriston