Are the brilliantly strange films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari a product of Greece’s economic turmoil? And will they continue to make films in the troubled country?
It must be the worst kiss in screen history. Two young women face each other in front of a white wall. They crane their necks, lock lips and awkwardly flex their jaws. There’s no hint of passion. They look more like two birds trying to feed each other. After an excruciating minute of this, they pause. One of them says she feels like throwing up. They clumsily rub their tongues together a little more, only to end up spitting at each other, then blowing raspberries, before hissing at each other like cats.
Attenberg, by Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari, doesn’t get much more normal from there on in. Its heroine, Marina, is a 23-year-old outsider who’s largely disgusted by the idea of human contact. She’s also close to her dying father, whom she talks to about imagining him naked “but without a penis”. Other pastimes include the music of Suicide and the documentaries of David Attenborough. If she sounds like a kooky indie romcom cypher in the Zooey Deschanel mould, she’s the exact opposite. Like the film around her, Marina is defiantly eccentric but also intelligent, sensitive and somehow rational.
“I dislike ‘quirky’ or ‘kooky’. I get really sad when I read that kind of word attached to Attenberg,” says the film’s writer and director. “I didn’t want Marina to be a weirdo; I wanted her to be very solid, very dedicated to her principles, but not at ease with humans.”
Tsangari says she works with “biology and not psychology … I’m not at all into method acting and all those ways of preparing actors. It’s very, very physical.” She cites a range of influences from Greek tragedy to Kubrick and Buñuel, but beyond giving the film its mispronounced title, Attenborough himself was a key inspiration. “I thought it would be interesting to observe Marina the way Attenborough observes his subjects, with a kind of scientific tenderness.”
Tsangari describes The Trials Of Life as “one of the masterpieces of cinema”. She has never met Britain’s patron saint of wildlife TV in real life but she did have to contact him to get permission to use his TV clips in the movie, she explains: “I faxed him a letter about the film, a bit of a love letter in fact, and he sent me a ‘good luck, best regards’ the next day. His little handwritten note – I’m such a geek – is still the wallpaper on my iPhone. For a year now.”
‘The common thing is we have no funds, so we have to make our own very cheap, very small films’
Global cinema-watchers will note that Attenberg is not the first brilliantly strange film to have come out of Greece lately. Last year we had Dogtooth, by Yorgos Lanthimos, a surreal, deadpan study of family wrongness in which three teenage children are confined within their home and systematically misinformed about the outside world, to the extent that they believe cats are vicious killers, zombies are small yellow flowers, and incest is an everyday pastime. Put that in your mandolin, Captain Corelli.
In recent years, Greece’s global image has been jolted from Mediterranean holiday idyll and home of big fat weddings to fractious trouble spot. And not just in economic terms; let’s not forget Greece had its own street riots in 2008. So perhaps it’s to be expected that the country’s cinema is changing, too. The growing number of independent, and inexplicably strange, new Greek films being made has led trend-spotters to herald the arrival of a new Greek wave, or as some have called it, the “Greek Weird Wave”. Whether or not the catchy label fits, if there is a wave, weird or otherwise, Lanthimos and Tsangari are undoubtedy at its crest. Dogtooth won a prize at Cannes and earned an Oscar nomination; Attenberg’s Ariane Labed won best actress at the Venice Film Festival last year.
There have been other, slightly less weird, Greek films getting attention, too. Wasted Youth, which opened this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival, is an edgy Larry Clark-style skater boy tale. It was loosely inspired by the real-life shooting of an Athens teenager which sparked the 2008 riots. Real footage from the riots was also incorporated into Homeland, a family saga. Then there’s Knifer, a tough but artful study of middle-class desperation (featuring Attenberg’s Vangelis Mourikis). And further up the strangeness scale, there’s Panos Koutras’s Strella, in which an ex-convict and a transsexual form an unorthodox family unit. Koutras’s The Attack Of The Giant Moussaka (1999) is also something of a gay cult classic.
Is it just coincidence that the world’s most messed-up country is making the world’s most messed-up cinema? Attenberg might not speak directly about Greece’s financial crisis, but in its own way, it reflects on today’s generation of Greeks and the legacy they’ve been handed. The movie is set in a 1960s industrial new town called Aspra Spitia, which has clearly seen better days. Marina’s dying father, an architect, bemoans the failure of his utopian modernism. “We built an industrial colony on top of sheep pens and thought we were making a revolution,” he tells her. “I leave you in the hands of a new century without having taught you anything.” Dogtooth, too, despite its abstract premise, could be read as an indictment of the older generation, in which context its images of teenagers stumbling blindfolded around their own garden, anaesthetising themselves just to pass the time, and quoting American movies in complete ignorance of what they’re saying, take on a certain resonance.
Despite his success with Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos is sceptical of the idea that something is happening in Greek cinema. “Well, the truth is that at some point people have a need to start noticing something,” he says. “It’s not quite a coincidence, but I’m afraid there is no foundation for this. There is no common philosophy, which is a good thing, I think. The common thing is we have no funds, so we have to make our own very cheap, very small films.”
Lanthimos and Tsangari have produced each other’s films, including Lanthimos’s debut, Kinetta. He also has a role in Attenberg. “I help her with her film, she helps me with mine,” he says. “This is the only way to get movies made here. There are no real producers in Greece and no public money any more. Most of the time we don’t really know how to do it, it’s a nightmare. But at least it’s done out of love.”
‘I thought the success of Dogtooth would make things easier but I don’t think that any more. I don’t know for how long people will sacrifice themselves for art’
Tsangari had a little more experience in indie logistics, having learned from a master: Richard Linklater. She had a Fulbright scholarship to study drama in New York, but then did a film course in Austin, Texas. Within two days of arriving she ran into Linklater, who was just making his seminal debut Slacker. She even has a small part in it. She stayed in Austin for eight years, running a local short film festival and making films, before returning to Greece to work on visuals for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics, where she met Lanthimos.
One thing that does unite Greece’s new generation is a preoccupation with family, Tsangari observes. “It’s a Greek obsession. The reason our politics and economy is in such trouble is that it’s run as a family. It’s who you know.” In a larger sense, young Greeks are up against the tyranny of their ancestry, of Greece’s nostalgia for its own history. “The 21st century is something all of us are trying to subvert.”
How easy that will be now remains to be seen. Lanthimos’s new film, Alps (produced by Tsangari, of course), will premiere at Venice next month. “It’s about this group of people that offer to stand in for deceased people to their relatives and friends,” he explains. “So basically it’s about a nurse who finds people in hospital who have just lost someone and approaches them as clients. It’s quite ridiculous and tragic.” Beyond that, though, Lanthimos doesn’t think he can carry on making films in Greece: “I thought the success of Dogtooth would make it easier but I don’t think that any more. I don’t know for how long people will sacrifice themselves for art.”
Tsangari, on the other hand, having lived outside Greece for most of the past 15 years, plans to stay. “This is the situation and somehow we have to fix it now, and cinema is a great way to do that. I’m not saying I’m going to make a film about the riots – I don’t want to be that literal – but Greece is an unknown country, even to its citizens, and I want to discover it for myself.”