“I hate it when people talk about 'Greek films,' like they're all the same,” Athina Rachel Tsangari told me in September, over drinks at the Toronto Film Festival. It's a fair complaint: Shared national heritage is the least interesting thing uniting the two movies at AFI Fest bearing the name of the Greek-born, University of Austin–educated, Richard Linklater–mentored Tsangari.
Her second feature, Attenberg, for which Ariane Labed won the Best Actress prize at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, is Greece's Oscar submission. The film features a supporting performance by Yorgos Lanthimos, director of last year's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Dogtooth — the movie that ignited the “Greek films” talk, at least stateside. Tsangari produced Lanthimos' ALPS, which won the screenplay prize this year at Venice. (Both films are scheduled for U.S. theatrical release in 2012.)
Cracked coming-of-age tale Attenberg is set in a Greek seaside town, with long, stunning wide shots describing the environment's uneasy split between serene natural beauty and industrial intrusion. Labed stars as Marina, a 23-year-old virgin whose sexual initiation coincides with her single father and close confidant's battle with cancer.
Taking its title from a lost-in-translation mangling of Sir Richard Attenborough's name — Marina's interest in his nature documentaries dovetails with her growing awareness of animal instinct in her own life — the film is an episodic sketch of a young woman's awakening to the agony, ecstasy and awkwardness of biological inevitability, managing to swing from dry comedy to allegorical musical numbers to unabashed sentimentality on a soundtrack of French chanteuse pop and the tape-deck post-punk of Suicide.
ALPS (starring Labed and Dogtooth star Aggeliki Papoulia) is a stylistic departure from the candy-colored quasi-sci-fi of Lanthimos' last feature, whose flippant shock value seemed to play better to genre fans than old-school art-house cinephiles. Here, Papoulia plays a nurse who moonlights as a member of a gang of “substitutes” who offer their services impersonating the recently deceased to help survivors grieve.
As patently absurd at the story level as Dogtooth's parable of closed social systems is, the world Lanthimos presents here is stylistically staid (natural light, minimal music), lending a disquieting realism to stuntlike action. It's a clinical but ultimately wrenching dissection of the madness of real-world storytelling, the destructive potential of the cinema-influenced narratives we tell ourselves and play out as coping mechanisms.