The title of Attenberg, the latest curiosity from the emerging Greek cinema, is a sly malapropism, referring literally to a mispronunciation of Sir David Attenborough, the writer of nature documentaries, but more generally to the missing pieces in its characters’ lives. Like its kissing cousin Dogtooth—that film’s director, Giorgos Lanthimos, has a key role here, and the lead, Ariane Labed, also stars in Lanthimos’ latest film, Alps—Attenberg examines odd, frequently perverse behavior from an anthropological distance. Even without footage from Attenborough’s documentaries about apes, Attenberg renders human beings’ animal impulses as completely foreign, not least to the people trying to come to terms with who they are and how they’re supposed to make their way in the world. The drama, at its core, is simple and conventional, but it has the aura of science fiction.
Set in a depressed industrial town by the sea, Attenberg follows Ariane Labed, an aimless 23-year-old who whiles away her days tending to her ailing father (Vangelis Mourikis) and playing adolescent games with her closest friend (Evangelia Randou). Her inexperience is evident from the first scene, when her friend gives her a slobbery, repulsive lesson in the art of French kissing. As her father withers away from cancer, Labed faces the uncertainty of finally growing up and learning how to be an adult. To that end, she tentatively—very tentatively—embarks on a relationship with a visiting engineer (Lanthimos) who invites her into his hotel room and teaches her things most people her age already know.
Stripped of all its random weirdness, Attenberg has the premise of a classic Yasujiro Ozu drama like Late Spring, with its relationship between a widower approaching death and a devoted daughter who needs to leave the nest before it’s too late. But weirdness covers the movie like an ancient bark, and beyond that, the tree looks mighty frail. Writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari shoots in a deadpan, observational style that’s uncannily similar to Lanthimos’, but where the bizarre goings-on in Dogtooth housed a potent metaphor for isolationism, Attenberg forwards a much more modest tale about a young woman’s belated coming of age. It approaches human nature with the hushed mystery of the Attenborough documentaries its heroine watches on TV, but its discoveries are slight.