Saturday, April 2, 2011

2011 New Directors/New Films Reviews: "Attenberg" and "Hospitalité"

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)

From the folks who brought you Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ singularly and comically disturbing drama about a strange family that was one of last year’s best films (and was an unlikely Oscar nominee), comes Attenberg, an equally strange and equally brilliant film that provocatively explores familial and sexual relations, mixing the absurd, the melancholic, the political, and the erotic in astonishing ways.  The provocation begins with the very first image, of two young women tongue kissing against a peeling wall.  These are best friends Marina (Ariane Labed) and Bella (Evangelia Randou), conducting a bizarre sex education session initiated by Marina, who has never had sex herself, but is fascinated with it in an zoological fashion.  Her lack of engagement is a function of her extreme closeness with her father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), who is slowly dying, but calmly accepts his fate and prepares for his exit from the 20th century, which he terms “overrated.”  Marina watches the nature films of Sir David Attenborough (the film’s title is a phonetic respelling of his name), and imitates animal behavior with her father and with Bella.  Into the mix comes an engineer (Yorgos Lanthimos), who Marina uses to take her sexual experience out of the realm of observation and surreal dreams.  Tsangari invests her deeply strange scenario with moody visuals, rigorous internal logic, and a strong emotional quality that prevents these characters from becoming mere vessels of weird behavior.  This comes through in the strong performances all around, especially Labed, whose justly celebrated turn earned her the best actress award at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Hospitalité (Koji Fukada)

The idea of the houseguest who turns everything upside down is not new to films; such disparate works as Pasolini’s Teorema and Miike’s Visitor Q explore this notion.  Koji Fukada’s debut feature Hospitalité adds dry and deliciously deadpan humor to this scenario.  In a sleepy neighborhood in downtown Tokyo, Mikio Kobayashi (Kenji Yamauchi) runs a small printing shop, where he also lives with his wife Natsuko (Kiki Sugino), his young daughter Eriko (Eriko Ono), and his divorced sister Seiko (Kumi Hyodo).  Nothing much seems to happen here, yet a xenophobic neighbor wheedles them into joining a neighborhood watch, because of supposed crime being committed by foreigners.  Eriko’s lost parakeet is the catalyst for the events that will upend this family’s calm life, which turns out to be a deceptive calm that hides all sorts of secrets.  These secrets are uncovered by Kagawa (Kanji Furutachi), who introduces himself to the family as the son of a wealthy benefactor who helped Mikio with his business.  He soon insinuates himself into the family and the business, bringing in tow his wife Annabelle (Bryerly Long), who is either from Brazil or Bosnia; it is never clear which.  The two function as a neutron bomb that lays bare the hidden tensions that exists behind the seemingly placid façade of polite pleasantries.  Writer-director Koji Fukada and principal actors Kenji Yamauchi and Kanji Furutachi are members of the Seinendan Theatre Company, and Hospitalité does indeed have a theatrical quality, as much of the action takes place in the family’s small house, and the film gets much comic mileage out of how the space gets increasingly crowded as events progress.  Cinematic values are hardly neglected, however; the surrounding environment is just as vividly drawn as what happens inside the Kobayashi home.  What is most remarkable about Hospitalité is how the drama and comedy are so carefully and subtly calibrated; from the start, there is the sense that what seems ordinary and nearly banal is in fact anything but.  The film’s success in sustaining this mood is in large part due to its excellent cast, who so skillfully embody the deceptive nature of their characters.  Alongside the theater-trained veteran actors Yamauchi and Furutachi, actress and producer Kiki Sugino proves their equal in beautifully essaying her character, who has the most profound change in eventually asserting her own agency.  Hospitalité, among is other many virtues, is a potent critique of the insularity and homogeneity that exists in Japanese society, and offers a comically rendered but rather beautiful and hopeful alternative.

For more information on these and other festival films, and to purchase tickets, visit the New Directors/New Films website.