Still from Dogtooth (2009) — Image via

Selections From Recent Greek Cinema

Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Attenberg (2010) Directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari

Greek filmmakers and frequent colleagues Giorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari have denied that their collective body of work constitutes part of a “Greek New Wave,” and Tsangari in particular has objected to the very concept of a Greek national cinema. Given the substantial crossover of acting and production personnel between these three recent films of theirs, however, it seems fair enough to consider them in light of each other.

Dogtooth (Kynodontas) gained attention in the U.S. as an unconventional nominee for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 2010 Academy Awards. It focuses on three teenage siblings (Aggeliki Papoulia, Hristos Passalis, and Mary Tsoni) whose parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley) have chosen to completely cut them off from society. The children have no names, their home is surrounded by a tall fence, and they have been taught alternative definitions for words that might make them curious about the outside world. (For instance, they use the word “telephone” to refer to a salt shaker.) Furthermore, the parents have come up with an elaborate system of rewards and punishments (of a relatively limp and brutal variety, respectively) to ensure obedience to parental authority.

There is one major exception to the limitation on influences from the outside world. The father — the only family member who leaves the house — has hired a security guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) at the factory where he works to have sex periodically with his son. Unsurprisingly, this eventually causes a rupture in the family’s rigid existence, exceeding the ability of the parents to protect their children from the rest of civilization.

Still from Attenberg (2010) — Image via haosfilm.comAttenberg is about a young woman, Marina (Ariane Labed), who lives with her architect father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), in the factory town of Aspra Spitia. The name of the town means “white walls,” which is an apt description of the uniform terraced landscape that Spyros has helped to create. Spyros is dying of cancer, while the town is dying of industrial decay. Marina, who works as a cab driver, spends much of her spare time performing Monty Python-inspired “silly walks” in an otherwise empty courtyard with her only apparent friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), and watching the nature documentaries of David Attenborough (whose name, as mispronounced by Bella, gives the film its title) with her father.

Marina has a visceral distaste for human contact, both physical and emotional, preferring to engage with people and situations through dispassionate intellectual analysis. Both she and Spyros recognize that he is largely responsible for making her this way, and Marina makes some substantial efforts to push beyond her comfort zone. In addition to Spyros’s worsening condition, the other driving force of the plot is the arrival in town of an engineer (Dogtooth‘s Lanthimos) with whom Marina enters into a tentative relationship.

Still from Alps (2011) — Image via haosfilm.comAlps (Alpeis) follows the exploits of four people — a paramedic (Aris Servetalis), a nurse (Dogtooth‘s Papoulia), a gymnast (Attenberg‘s Labed), and the latter’s trainer (Johnny Vekris) — who have banded together to offer a unique service. The families and friends of people who have died can hire the Alps to imitate their loved ones for a few hours a week as a means of helping them cope with the losses they have suffered. The paramedic, code-named Mont Blanc, is the leader of the group, and he and the nurse, code-named Monte Rosa, take advantage of their positions to scout out potential clients. Like the father in Dogtooth, Mont Blanc uses brutal punishments to keep the other Alps in line.

Although the Alps place a high importance on copying the clothing and dialogue of the people they portray, their “acting” is extremely wooden. Nevertheless, their clients seem to appreciate their services. While the motivations of most of the members of the group are unclear, it gradually becomes obvious that Monte Rosa derives a great deal of her identity from her work, something that causes her to engage in unauthorized activity with one client and take on another client without Mont Blanc’s knowledge or approval.

All three films share an interest in the extent to which it is possible or desirable to remain confined to a closed system. In Dogtooth, the family’s isolated state can only be maintained through authoritarian measures, and even then it is impossible to keep outside influences at bay. In Attenberg, Marina doubts that she will be able to cross the boundaries she has placed on her existence and her relationships with others, yet she continues to attempt to do so. And in Alps, Mont Blanc and his group try to shield their clients from the reality of death through the rote repetition of familiar scenes from the past.

All of this naturally invites some discussion of recent events in Greece. Over the past few years, as the European debt crisis has unfolded, many of the traditional underpinnings of Greek society have buckled, and millions of Greeks have been subjected to lower wages, higher taxes, and a weakened social safety net. Dogtooth was made at a time of increasing concern over the direction of the country, Attenberg was written during the 2008 riots against the government, and Alps was filmed soon after the first austerity measures took effect. In all three films, one senses anxiety about what is going to happen next and what it might mean to live under radically changed conditions.

Against this backdrop, and using some similar techniques of denaturalization — including distant and static camerawork, deadpan dialogue, and plenty of silence — Lanthimos and Tsangari tell three unique, intriguing stories that invite discussion and reflection.

Originally posted on The 400 Blows

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.