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Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Politics of Suspicion: ‘Attenberg’ and ‘Chevalier’

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010)

“An optimistic bourgeois modernist” is what a dying father calls his 23-year-old daughter as he laments the end of his own life on the basis of her inability to cope with life’s social codes. In a scene from Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010), mean-eyed Marina (Ariane Labed) accompanies her father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), an alienated architect who’s now withering away from cancer, on a regular walk up a hill overlooking the remnants of their post-industrial hometown, Aspra Spitia. Spyros may be terminally ill and full of resentment towards his home country, stating that Greece has “skipped the industrial age altogether”, but it is the tripartite accusation he throws at his own daughter that best summarises a particular kind of discontent towards his social reality. However, Tsangari rejects simple cynicisms and instead prefers to explore the basis of that same discontent plaguing her characters. In Attenberg, the intergenerational tension incorporated in the way Spyros addresses Marina in that sequence exemplifies a thread which underscores the Greek filmmaker’s political bite: suspicion. With her next film, Chevalier (2015), she fleshes out her take on the politics of suspicion within a satirical framework. In other words, suspicion, as she uses it, is an instance of self-inflicted oppression. Such an approach is useful as an alternative reading of the inherent tensions between oppression and freedom that characterise contemporary Greek cinema, without relying on catch-all descriptors to decode Tsangari’s work (such as one pertaining to the “Greek Weird Wave”).

Infamously, it was journalist Steve Rose who coined the term in his 2011 Guardian article ‘Attenberg, Dogtooth and the Weird Wave of Greek Cinema’, placing film titles from the recent years against a “strangeness scale”, which directly related to the country’s severe financial crisis. From then on, it has become common sense to link the economically destitute scenario of 2008 with the way films show the crumble of a certain national identity narrative, and to paint contemporary Greek cinema as nothing more than a self-reflexive critical tool up to the point of exhaustion. This shortcut way of describing the oppositional aesthetics of current Greek cinema has provided a handy (but often false) assurance to critics who have inadvertently circumscribed the singularity of not one film’s political message, reducing it to a product of crisis. Through the character of Spyros, Attenberg obliquely criticises not only the consequences of abandoned industrialisation, but also the upheaval that modernity has caused to the human socium.

Spyros bemoans his impotence as the town’s architect—in his own words, he “designs ruins, calculating their eventual collapse”—as well as his fatherly shortcomings, for Marina does not conceal her aversion to people and her disgust towards sexual desire and eroticism.

I am an atheist old man, a toxic remnant of modernism and post-Enlightenment. And I leave you in the hands of a new century, without having taught you anything.

These are the words which synthesise Attenberg’s verdict on the present, both lived and cinematic. By refuting religion, Spyros articulates his identity through self-depreciation and scepticism towards progress and the naivete of modernism. His philosophical qualms are not an isolated ordeal; by acknowledging the lessons he failed to provide as a father—namely, how to live with other people—after having instilled in his daughter a disdain for humankind, he takes shelter in his own discontent but in a more cynical way.

In addition, Marina’s own reservations towards physical and emotional intimacy are so overly stylised to the point of anti-psychologisation. The film’s opening sets the tone of emotional illiteracy by presenting a kissing lesson, led by her friend Bella (Evangelia Randou), in a highly estranged, mechanical fashion, while the camera is documenting the event in a static long take. Both aesthetically and narratively, this act of intimacy that is so devoid of actual closeness exemplifies the contradictions inherent in Marina’s undecipherable world. What’s the reason behind her asocial behaviour? Sure, her mother has passed, her father is terminally ill, and her daily life is repetitive, so the reasons for her being emotionally stunted could come off as a natural reaction to her surroundings, but Tsangari does not opt for such simplification. Instead, she prefers to exteriorise Marina’s ambivalent suspicion towards the biology and sociology of human beings, and unsurprisingly, the film often likens her to one of the many animals observed with sentiment by the natural historian Sir David Attenborough, whose mispronounced name lends itself to the film’s otherwise quirky title. After placing her protagonist into a destitute, sterile environment, Tsangari grants her attention and careful observation in a quasi-documentarian fashion, which in turn grants her the freedom to potentially overcome her state of social atrophy.

As a meta-fictional animal documentary itself, Attenberg looks at Marina in a detached manner, documenting her social mishaps as a learning curve. Since the “survival of the fittest” trope is what governs the animal kingdom in that respective branch of nonfiction filmmaking, Spyros’s regret of depriving his daughter of social conditioning resonates with the film’s form and style. Depriving her of the survival skills required in modern times, he has left her unguarded and vulnerable—like the unfortunate animal the film frames her as.

As a result of not being taught to live with others, Marina is instinctively suspicious towards everyone—she mistrusts her father’s judgements on architecture, she presumes Bella “flirts with everybody”, and doubts the sincerity of her eventual lover, the nameless engineer (Yorgos Lanthimos). Since she lacks the conventional tools to decode social reality in a harmless way, her attitude towards everything and everyone encapsulates the feeling of omnipresent harm. In a state of permanent suspicion, Marina embodies not the perils of individualism as an anarchic tool, but mostly the private need for control which a distrustful person acts upon.

Wariness is also conveyed by the film’s use of simple mise-en-scène and minimalist aesthetics. The shots which feature Marina and another person are framed with a certain sharpness by fixing both bodies in the two distant corners of the image. In addition, long, hardly conversational takes contribute to the claustrophobia of constant vigilance: the film makes itself hard to read and oftentimes flirts with the idea of arousing suspicion towards the characters’ motives in the viewer themselves. Doubt (to be equated with suspicion), therefore, is contagious, and owes its infectious character to its relational nature—there is an agent (a doubter) and a recipient of doubt—which already inscribes such a dynamic in a complex clockwork of mechanisms that ultimately limit one’s freedom.

Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015)

With her next feature, Chevalier (2015), Tsangari marries suspicion and humour. Tagged as “a buddy comedy without the buddies”, the film follows a group of six men on a flashy boat, while they play a game to determine who amongst them is the best at everything. Chevalier premiered as part of Locarno’s competition line-up, travelled the festival circuit far and beyond, and won both the Best Film award at London Film Festival and the best screenplay prize at the Hellenic Film Academy Awards in 2016. Once acclaimed, both internationally and domestically, the film seems to generate a string of responses that repeatedly come back to the same points: its satirical take on masculinity, the filmmaker’s supposed use of the female gaze to assure that particularly satiric viewpoint, or as a perennial commentary on the way the financial crisis has deformed Greek identity. I propose, however, a more playful reading of rule-making and rule-following, one which transcends questions of gender and identity politics. According to cultural theorist Stuart Hall, every regime of representation is a regime of power, and therefore potentially oppressive—not only through framing (which already limits the freedom of view), but also through the chosen way of portraying given human characters in relation to their surroundings.

Once again, Tsangari steers away from psychologisation as she did with Attenberg. Instead of gesturing towards a certain “essence of man” that would subsume the more traditional (and therefore, mocked) masculine ideals, the filmmaker prefers to observe. Such an attitude is very much in line with her background (she studied ethnographic film in Austin, Texas) and the use of humorous tones when building her six characters instils a distinct “humanness” unlike the animal comparisons in her previous film.

Somewhere in the Aegean Sea, far from any recognisable land, the luxurious yacht harbours men and their familial or professional relationships; none is a stranger, but no one is truly a friend either. It is only under the veneer of fraternal intimacy that suspicion can reveal its transformative potential and with it, its ethical value. After all, if suspicion forces us to change, is it for better or for worse? All six of them consent to starting a game that would leave no room for a game-less reality. As famed Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga observed in his important work on the cultural significance of games, Homo Ludens, any game is order and there is no outside of that order. The boat trip becomes a ceaseless game of painful negotiation, an exhaustive exercise of peeling off one’s own ego when confronted with the demands of the game.

By expanding the rules to everything and every time, Tsangari holds up a mirror in which suspicion multiplies and refracts—a mise-en-abyme of doubt. Firstly, the characters often probe each other as the film’s narrative unfolds (either with verbalised questions or provocative actions) in order to incite compromising responses that would then rearrange the power dynamic. What may be read as no less of a malicious intent is simply a self-centric claim of control, and control always has a political underpinning. In this way, Chevalier strays away from potential didacticism and opts for the move towards abstraction instead. When the dick measuring contest becomes uncompromisingly literal, reality becomes an abstract version of itself: a structured 24/7 performance, pierced by hints of double-crossing.

Participants in this homosocial experiment are: the patriarch-figure known as the Doctor (TV and theatre actor Yiorgos Kendros), Yorgos (theatre director Panos Koronis), Josef (Vangelis Mourikis), Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou), Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) and Christos (played by pop star Anastasios ‘Sakis’ Rouvas). Together, they agree to come up with challenges, and then rate each other. As simple as that. One of them proposes an expansion of the initial “best at everything” game, such as it becomes uncontained and ungovernable. In order to judge each other on everything they do, they need to be in a state of constant awareness, and ready to be exposed for every detail or act: from how high they wear their pants to how they think. From then on, the film becomes a constant battle over descriptions, truthfulness and superiority. Based entirely on a narrative of competitive proof-seeking, the comic tones of the conversations often clash with the ridiculous minutiae of the Chevalier game. Every conversation within it already incorporates a threat; a threat that you’ll be examined. Even the casual tone enquiring how many fillings does one have, reveals the actual demand lurking below the surface of the question, i.e. “Who has the healthiest teeth?” Every answer, then, should necessarily be paired with a representation, a “show and tell” that turns every man into a proud performer, an object to be beheld and readily examined. Every time is a good time to show the beauty of your morning erection, so it can be duly noted in one’s notebook, right? But it is the gap, the silences between these game-tests that are what steers the emotional tension and rearranges the power hierarchy within the group.

A similar device of highlighting the examined and, respectively, his examiner, is also present in Hristos Karamanis’s face-drawn camerawork. Oftentimes, the speakers belong in separate frames, granted close-ups of their faces, while the camera goes full circle, sticking with anyone voicing out their concerns or responses. There is never a clear view within the frame, as the backs of others still remain visible, as if the camera channels a shifting but always participatory point of view, enforcing the relational aspect of suspicion. The scenes are framed in a central composition, their broad spread reaching up to the corners of the wide angle shots, but, when moving, the camera usually tracks or tilts to mimic a constant companion to the players. As if as simple an act as a head-turn could change the course of action, the cinematography itself instructs the viewer to be aware and wary of any seating arrangement, of anyone’s presence or absence.

Soon, everyone becomes a vigilante: is someone wearing shoes while on board (it’s forbidden), who will come first to attend to a false call for help, and who will do so last. As a rule, every test comes with a ringing moral judgement, and it is not surprising that the power that suspicion yields projects itself onto the future. After all, even if the Chevalier game concerns the imminent present (via challenges that should happen here and now), the stakes are implied within any future that will ensue from the fishing trip. The game, therefore, is not reducible to simply measuring oneself and scoring each other, but manifests its ability to disclose social relations. It reveals not only individual prides and shortcomings, but also stratifies the already existent interpersonal tensions.

It is also the public nature of their speaking (i.e. in front of each other, at all times) that transforms the conversation into a test: the rules of the game are what makes everything competitive, comparable, and measurable. In the characters’ desire for quantification, Erika Balsom sees the incarnation of the neoliberal subject, “its obsession with metrics and its spurious injunction that we must not just tolerate capital’s complete subsumption of life but find it enjoyable and fun, like a game.” If we compare Balsom’s point about Chevalier to the attitude of modernity exhibited in Attenberg, we see how the latter’s ruling against a stifling modernism and the former’s pushback against neoliberal abundance and against the demand for expertise tie in Tsangari’s quasi-anthropological attention to the way suspicious subjects interact and rearrange their relationships.

Chevalier playfully gestures towards a distilled (hu)man being, all pertaining to expectations that are deeply seethed in bourgeois values. While it turns out that any flaw or insufficiency will be sanctioned, even momentary inconveniences such as admitting that you’re cold or your fear of needles, or even burping at the dinner table, can be detrimental. In a way, suspicion may seem a disease of the middle class, one which demands a certain economic stability to spur its influence over one’s clandestine insecurities, but, as the narrative teaches us, this particular virus benefits from cross-class contamination. At the end of the film, the cabin boy and the cook, who have remained on board (but mostly off-screen or as a fragmented presence) this entire time, include themselves in a new game of suspicion, absorbing the rituals they’ve already witnessed.

Once the game is finished, at least for the passengers, it doesn’t truly end. Suspicion is contagious, and does not plague the rich exclusively. Closing with this act of mimicry, Chevalier remains open-ended in similarity with Attenberg. Both of Tsangari’s films reconstruct the self-imposed oppressive regime in intricate detail by exploring the social formations of families, friendships, and work relations. Nascent in an otherwise tyrannical self-projection, there is hope, as well as a gesture towards the liberating potential of confronting one’s (amongst everyone else’s) worst tendencies. The insecurities exacerbated by one’s suspicion perpetuate the most fragile truths of the human condition, and these concern the need for tenderness, for care, and for harmless laughter. And the politics will follow.