Shattered films from a shattered country

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 this troubled country?

Published on 2 September 2011 at 13:05
Image courtesy of Kino International  | A still from Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth (2010).

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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), has its premiere in Venice this year. “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.”

Read full article in the Guardian

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