Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mouth to Mouth

Athina Rachel Tsangari's film Attenberg opens with an extended scene of two young women awkwardly French kissing in front of a stark exterior. There is no passion, as their bodies barely touch and they aimlessly jab their tongues into each other’s mouths. The session erupts into a spat and it becomes apparent that we are witnessing a kissing lesson between best friends.

Attenberg is a coming of age film centered on Marina, a twenty-three year old virgin who lives with her father Spyros. She is a late-bloomer, who at twenty-three, is finally examining her ambivalence about sex. Marina likes the breast more than the penis, but doesn’t desire men or women. She is perplexed but not desperate about her situation. Her days are filled with the tedium of real life, as she accompanies her father to his cancer treatments or drives the scenic but deserted roads of her small Greek town. Marina is obsessed with David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries and she often goes wild mimicking animal sounds and movements.

As Spyros’ illness advances, a shift begins in Marina’s psyche and she becomes more open to the possibilities of sexual intimacy. She seeks out a visiting engineer and begins a nearly clinical investigation of lovemaking. Tsangari's sex scenes are injected with a raw awkwardness and the body is tangible and imperfect. Like sex in real life, there are elbows and limp members and too much worrying.

Throughout Attenberg, there is a focus on the pure physicality of the body. Tsangari’s characters are mortal and they evolve through a kind of haptic knowledge. There are tongues in mouths kissing and fingers in mouths to pull out bones during a fish dinner. Marina feels her body in space, flailing about, dancing to music or imitating animal gestures with Spyros. At one point, Marina cups Bella’s bare breasts, as a test of arousal, illuminating the possibilities of a non-sexual physical intimacy. 

The film is punctuated with scenes of Marina and Bella wearing polka dot spattered dresses moving arm and arm down the sidewalk like Siamese twins joined at the hip. They enact synchronized gestures like marching, kicking their legs out, or grabbing their crotches. They are distinctly unladylike in their gestures and in their conversations about Bella’s dream of a tree strewn with male genital. They are subversive in their play and experience the intimacies and annoyances of sisterhood. 

Marina and Bella are reminiscent of other cinematic girl duos like Celine and Julie and the two Maries from Daisies. All of these girl-women are fearlessly independent as they forge their own identities outside the limits of proper society. They play around and make their own adventures. They are not motivated by the lure of romantic love and they take comfort in the warmth of their sisterly bonds. Men may come and go, but sisters are forever! I can imagine Marina and Bella as old ladies, still arm and arm kicking up their heels and spinning naughty tales.

Attenberg is infected with a sense of loss, one that is existential rather than sentimental. Near the end of his life, Spyros laments that he hasn’t taught his daughter anything. He worries that his own misanthropy has left her with a faithless and isolated future. We know that Marina will be lonely, but we also know that she has found resilience through her body, that she will go on growing into the world through her own ritual and inquiry.

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