Synchronicity and Alignment in Attenberg

by Laura Rubio

In Attenberg (Tsangari 2010), scenes where the protagonists, two women, walk down a desolate, grey sidewalk with their arms interlocked, wearing matching dresses in different colors, allow for a keen understanding of symmetry and character in the film. Bella is on the left in black and Marina is on the right in royal blue. Both dresses have a speckled pattern, like sprinkles, long sleeves that reach the wrists and a collared neck that is slightly open, creating a v-shaped patch of skin on both women. They stroll, in no hurry to reach a destination. Close-ups of the women’s knees intersperse the longer backward tracking shots that make up most of this scene. Bella tells Marina about her dream, where she finds a penis-filled tree. Marina listens, confused and apprehensive about the genitalia. Throughout Attenberg (Tsangari 2010), there are a number of walking scenes where Bella and Marina proceed down the same sidewalk, in unison and in their coat-uniforms. These scenes of Bella and Marina walking in unison and in uniform remain a constant theme throughout the film, but each time they walk they they gallop like colts, flutter down the street with downturned palms like birds, and, most famously, strut with open legs and both hands cupping their vaginas, occasionally sticking out a finger to mimic a penis. Marios Psaras interprets these scenes in his book, The Queer Greek Weird Wave noting how director writes about Attenberg in his book, and observes how director Athina Rachel Tsangari created the film using ethological lens rather than psychological ones. We see this in the way the film treats viewers as documentary spectators rather than more traditional scopophilic spectators. This change mimics documentary filming techniques and changes the viewing protocols of the film allowing for spectators to interact with the film as a documentary rather than scopophilic experience.

The entirety of Attenberg centers around its connection to nature documentary filmmaking. From these walking scenes to the film’s title which is Bella’s mispronunciation of Sir David Attenborough’s name, Attenberg seeks to capture Bella and Marina as animals living in nature.  In these walking scenes, much like in real life, we see Bella and Marina in their natural habitat. Most of the time, the walks are silent, without conversation or voiceover narration. The silence is a nod to Sir David Attenborough’s film making wherein he feels that nature does not require an explanation because it is essentially meaningless. Thus, It feels like there is nothing to explain because, in fact, there isn’t; nature just is. These walks also exist beyond the diegesis of the film. They are confined within their spatial and temporal realities, they have no narrative role nor do they push the plot forward. Instead, they allow the viewer to understand the allusion from the footage of Marina and Bella to the footage we see in documentary films of female animals traveling together in search of something or moving. Psaras attests to this when he says that “the ‘queerly’ acting body in Attenberg quite often reverts to meaningless animalistic behavior, thus breaking with the contours of the social and exploring a pre-discursive landscape, which, akin to the documentaries of Attenborough, interrogates and reclaims the space of the ‘natural’” (128). To further this point, we can view Bella and Marina’s matching coats as symbolic animal pelts. After all, they are only ever seen in these walking scenes. There is also a sense of improvisation and spontaneity to the walks, almost as if Bella and Marina were working them out in the moment, much like play is unplanned in the animal kingdom. The fact that these walks repeat throughout the film could also indicate ritual, and Bella and Marina walking together could reference the way animals travel in packs. 

The fact that Bella and Marina are always synchronized in these walks speaks to the significance of alignment. Psaras defines alignment as a state where we are “in line with others, facing the direction that is already faced by others” (130). And while this may seem self-explanatory, it is significant when we look at Marina’s dis-alignment in the rest of the film. Namely, her resistance to society’s expectations of sexuality, femininity and gender. Thus, to see Marina align with Bella in these brief walking scenes, especially when they are performing intricate box steps and combinations, seems almost miraculous. In fact, there is only one other character with whom Marina eventually aligns: the engineer, who remains nameless throughout the film. He and Marina meet when she is assigned to drive him to and from Marina’s factory while he is in town. Over the course of Attenberg, they develop a sexual relationship spearheaded by Marina. 

To say that it takes Marina some time to align with the engineer would be an understatement because while she seems eager to explore sex, she lacks the knowledge and ease to do it with sensuality. It seems that Marina while a virgin has a biological curiosity about sex but her scientific approach makes it look and feel clinical for the viewer. We see her going through the motions of courting but without any of the passion. As a result, the film denies us any sort of voyeristic pleasure and instead reinforces its ethnographic lens, even during sex. As Psaras puts it, Marina’s “(hetero)sexual journey is marked by a substantial corporeal difficulty in successfully reproducing the aforementioned lines, highlighted precisely as a failed orientation, indeed, a disorientation” (Psaras 140). In their first sexual encounter, after some light kissing, Marina strips off all her clothes and stands naked in front of the engineer, awaiting instruction. At this moment, knowing Marina’s cluelessness, the engineer could have easily proceeded to remove his clothes too and take advantage of her naivete, but instead he helps Marina put her underwear and sweater back on. He senses that, while she may want to engage in sex, she is not emotionally or mentally ready to lose her virginity and his refusal of Marina’s body and Marina as a woman in this moment ironically propels her sexual development. Marina thinks she has a clear understanding of sex, but lacks any knowledge of the emotional and psycholocal affects sex has on her and her partner. Her understanding is purely biological. By rejecting her initial advancements, the engineer helps Marina understand that sex is more than just movement; it is also feeling, emotion and energy. This allows Marina the chance to rewire her expectations of sex, creating new schemas of what it could be in the process. And indeed, it is soon after this scene that she tells her father Spyros that she has met someone she thinks she likes for the first time. 

While Marina’s attitude towards the engineer should not negate her queer actions and thoughts prior to their sexual encounter, there is no doubt a gradual alignment by Marina with the engineer and, by default, with society. We see this alignment represented physically in Marina and the engineer’s future sexual encounters. About an hour into the film, after a bedside conversation with the terminally ill Spyros, Marina is shown on top of the engineer in bed, kissing him in a more natural and relaxed way in a close-up that shows their faces. We then see a medium shot of their bodies, Marina on top wearing nothing but a white tank top and the engineer on the bottom, wearing nothing. She is pressed into him and he keeps her close with his hands around her lower waist so that, together, their bodies create a continuous figure. Facing each other, they are in visually in alignment as well as physically intimate. That is, until Marina begins to describe everything that she’s doing. “Can you keep quiet for two minutes,” the engineer asks her, unable to stay present. Marina continues and “her incessant and detailed description of her physical and emotional permutations do not allow for a ‘natural’ unfolding of sexual activity” (Psaras 142). Instead, her descriptions act almost as observational voiceover, a classic feature of documentary films. This break contrasts David Attenborough’s method of film making thereby presenting her sexual experience as fabricated and out of sync. As a last resort to restore the inertia of the moment, Marina offers the engineer a blowjob but, seeing as he is unable to stay hard, simply rests her head between his thighs – once again disaligned.

It is their final sexual encounter that leads to true alignment, physical and emotional, between Marina and the engineer. This scene comes soon before the film’s ending and begins as an abrupt cutaway following a scene between Marina and Bella at the hospital. This time, the engineer and Marina are both naked in bed, the engineer on top of Marina and between her legs. While nothing explicit is seen, it is clear that he is penetrating Marina, taking her virginity in the process. Alignment between them looks different now, vertical rather than horizontal. Nonetheless, it is clear that they are indeed “in line” and they remain aligned even as they change positions and enjoy the heat of the moment. Now, Marina looks comfortable and present, no longer asking questions or describing her actions. She seems at peace with her body, her womanhood and her orientation —  both within herself and with the engineer. Psaras cites Sara Ahmed with saying that “gender could…be described as a bodily orientation” (139) and Marina’s bodily orientation and bodily alignment seems to indicate that there has been a shift in the way she understands and expresses gender. Indeed, this ultimate alignment makes us wonder: does Marina finally become in sync with the engineer when she stops acting the way she thinks she is supposed to act as a woman (ie: taking off all her clothes, offering blowjobs)? It seems that it is only when she is truly herself, a queer body that does not align with the social lines of gender and femininity, that Marina finally aligns with the engineer. Authenticity plays a role in one’s ability to align, given that we must feel like ourselves in order to truly connect with others. We see Marina’s path to self-acceptance and inner alignment through her sexual journey with the engineer. There is a deeper message rooted in this alignment as well. It speaks to the maximum potential of what love and connection can be. The engineer accepts Marina for who she is from the beginning, even rejecting versions of her that he knows are disingenuous. His unconditional acceptance eventually leads Marina to accept herself, showing us that loving someone exactly for who they are can help them align with themselves and then, truly, align with us.

Marina’s alignment and sexuality correspond with how the film portrays its characters. Once the characters break the fourth wall and begin narrating their actions they take themselves out of their natural habitat and resign themselves to documentaries that work against David Attenborough’s understanding of filmmaking. Thus, the film serves to reinforce Sir David Attenborough’s style of documentary by affirming his filmmaking style with visual alignment. Its telling of a human narrative through his approach, traditionally applied to animal subjects, widens its scope and suggests that films made for scopophilic viewing experiences are flawed in their depictions of real life people due to their lack of authenticity.

Works Cited –

Psaras, Marios. “Attenberg: Of (Dis-)Orientation.” The Queer Greek Weird Wave. 2016.

Tsangari, Athina Rachel. Attenberg. 2010.