Attenberg: Interview with Athina Rachel Tsangari
Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined but their bodies stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina (Arian Labed) has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical.
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naÃ¯ve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing and unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band); there’s also a brilliant scene sung to FranÃ§oise Hardy’s ‘Tous les garÃ§ons et les filles’. There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory, and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors.
Tsangari also produced last year’s Dogtooth (director Yorgos Lanthimos appears in Attenberg as The Engineer) and while Attenberg is a very different work, it’s exciting to see such original filmmaking emerge from their collaborations.
Sarah Cronin met the Austin-based director at the 2010 London Film Festival, where they discussed intimacy, making films in Greece, and science fiction.
SC: What was the inspiration for Marina’s character?
ART: That is always the most difficult question. What did you think?
It seemed very personal to me.
Did you identify with her at all?
I did, quite a lot. I think it was that feeling that you don’t necessarily belong anywhere.
Yes, that’s it. It’s the first movie that I’ve made in Greece. It took me years to figure out if I could make a movie in my own language and if I did, what it would be. It’s very difficult to see myself as a filmmaker in Greece because I was in America for so long, and it’s difficult to write in Greek. So it was about a girl who does not belong in her environment or in society. It’s something that came very naturally to me. And also, the relationship between father and daughter is primordial, especially in Third-World countries – or Second-World, somewhere between First and Third.
I was quite surprised by the discussion of cremation in the film. Is it true that it’s banned in Greece?
It’s not allowed yet because of the Church. I think they are passing a law to allow cremation, but that’s partly because of the lack of real estate. For someone like the father, who held ideals that were examined and failed, his last act of resistance is to be buried the way he wants to be. The film is structured as a series of negotiations between people, and I felt that it was a fair negotiation, the father asking Marina to help him die in a respectable way – and to ask her to become a bit more human, for her to belong in society.
I thought the love scenes with the engineer were incredibly well handled. They really captured all the fear and nervousness, and Marina’s own insecurities. The scenes didn’t seem gratuitous, but integral to her development.
I liked the idea that Marina would just keep talking while exploring this foreign thing. It was quite nice because there was so much camaraderie between us, we are all friends, and it wasn’t just a matter of directing actors. I think that intimacy shone through. We didn’t really rehearse those scenes very much because it would have been too awkward. It also astonishes me – I’ve been teaching for a while – that girls from the generation after me are so into sexuality and have no fear about their bodies – they’re not quite exhibitionists, but almost. Intimacy is something that’s lost on Facebook.
One of the aspects I liked was this great chemistry between Marina and Spiro and the rapid-fire way in which they speak. Was that all scripted?
In terms of the dialogue, very little was not in the script. It was strictly rehearsed in terms of the lines and also their body language. I have an obsession with screwball comedy, Howard Hawks and films like His Girl Friday. I really don’t like sentimentalism, or naturalist melodrama. In this plan that I had, that everyone had to negotiate something with someone, you also need a third person to work as a catalyst. That was very important to me. I’m slowly trying to develop my own language, this relationship between emotion and distance, and how you can negotiate the two without being far out or artistic and detached, and without being all like… chick film. I don’t like it when people say a movie is a great women’s film. Especially in Greece, it’s amazing: if you’re a woman, you don’t make cinema, you make women’s films. There is this idea that women largely make sentimental movies. It’s not that I totally resist that – I like films across the spectrum that are about women, even Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Do you think people will be shocked by the opening scene, as well as Marina’s relationship with her friend Bella? Did you want people to be disturbed by it?
No, I don’t – it’s just a kiss. I think mostly men are shocked by the opening scene. I think it’s even more controversial because it’s not a lesbian scene – it’s not about two women being together, loving each other, or discovering that they’re gay. It’s about one girl teaching another how to do something fundamental. It’s like the relationship between the father and daughter, who are trying to be on the same page and be kind of equal, which is very rare in Greece. She has a very close relationship with her dad, but a very antagonistic relationship with Bella.
You’ve started your own production company in Greece and were involved with producing Dogtooth. Are you trying to inject some life into the Greek film scene?
This is already happening. I’m a part of something that’s been going on for a couple of years. The first film that I produced in Greece was Yorgos’s first feature Kinetta. I love to produce my own stuff because it gives me a sense of freedom and independence, and I also take some kind of perverse pleasure in organising and making budgets. I love collaborating, and we do kind of have a collective. Greek cinema is working out right now, it’s very exciting. Some people say that Dogtooth and Attenberg have some things in common, although I don’t really think so, but there is a kinship between Yorgos and I, we’ve been discussing and working together for a long time.
Both Dogtooth and Attenberg have a very modernist feel to them, with the locations in particular.
I went back to the town where I grew up to shoot. It was a company town, built in the 60s. Lots of young engineers moved there in the 70s and moved their families into this kind of modernist utopia, which was half-French, half-Greek, because the company belonged to a huge French conglomerate. We left, and my sister and I kept going back in the summer, so we had an image of it as this place where sexual awakenings happened, like Marina’s – you know, boy-crazy summers at the disco.
I thought the town was very beautiful in a way. There’s the scene with her father when she says that she finds uniformity very soothing.
It is very beautiful, and I definitely find uniformity soothing. I remember the town as very vibrant, and very happy, full of sport and art. It was such a cultural environment. Going back there with the crew in the winter, it felt like a bit of a ghost town, which suited me very well. It fitted with Spiros’s acknowledgement of the failures of the 20th century. But for all of us it was very strange as a crew, shooting in this very empty, uniform town, with all these white blocks – it was like the lunar, extra-terrestrial version of the town, which I liked. It was devoid of anything traditional, of expected beauty.
There’s a very animalistic quality to Marina and Bella, and the scenes of them performing like animals are interwoven throughout the film. Was that an initial element of the film?
We watched lots of Attenborough clips because it was important to me to develop the characters like animals. Each of my actors had a favourite clip and a favourite animal. It was a memory that they had while they were acting. I’m an avid, passionate admirer of all things Attenborough, I’ve been watching him since I was a little girl. He’s near and detached at the same time, like melodrama, as I call it. It really suits me as an aesthetic. He’s so gracious and has so much tenderness towards nature and his subjects. It’s a big example to me, in how to approach characters in cinema.
Do you think you’ll make a film in Austin?
I would like to. My writing partner, Matt Johnson, who is also my editor, and I have just finished writing two science fiction scripts. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
What attracts you to science fiction?
I really like J.G. Ballard. I like stuff that’s like a projected present, or the future of the past, and it has elements of Western, like going to this frontier and discovering yourself. I also really want to make a science fiction movie in Europe. I was recently in Reykjavik – it felt like a combination of a Greek island, Iceland and the Isle of Man. There were all these colours, all this grass, and then this rocky landscape. I loved Duncan Jones’s Moon. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to make genre movies in Europe – it’s like it has to be either art-house or social realism.
Interview by Sarah Cronin