December 13, 2016
In the first shot of her first film, Athina Rachel Tsangari depicts a close up of a warring kiss, two tongues battling for position. This image from Fit, her 1994 short film, is one not of love or lust but of utility, the tongue turned into a tool. Throughout her career Tsangari has made a skill out of this kind of estrangement, re-contextualizing how bodies are used in cinema, whether it’s the dystopian sci-fi of The Slow Business of Going (2001), which turns youthful wanderlust into a downloadable commodity, or Attenberg (2010), which poses female friendship as a ritualized comedy of animalistic posing. Tsangari is a cinephile whose education took her to New York, Austin, and her homeland of Greece. FilmStruck is now streaming Tsangari’s entire output to date on The Criterion Channel, including three short films and her latest feature, Chevalier (2015), which pushes male upmanship to its natural, hilarious conclusion.
Tsangari came to the United States intending to study drama at NYU, but instead ended up at the University of Texas at Austin, where she befriended Richard Linklater, netting a bit part in Slacker. She became a central hub of Austin’s film community, founding and programming the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival while working towards a degree in filmmaking at U of T. While a teacher’s assistant, she taught the likes of Jay Duplass. It was while at school that she started production on The Slow Business of Going, which would become her thesis film. A madcap amalgam of spy movie, Chris Marker-style essay film, and slapstick comedy, it took four years to make, as Tsangari shot it piecemeal, only as money became available.
It follows Global Nomad Project (GNP) employee Petra Going (Lizzie Martinez) as she hopscotches across the globe with her rocking chair and record player. Her job is create memories that the GNP can offload and sell back to their customers, who can live the globe-trotting life they so desired. But what sounds like an adventurous gig is mostly spent inside faceless skyscrapers as Petra briefly befriends fellow rootless travelers like herself. The film is as patchwork and DIY as its protagonist, which is both maddening and appropriate – the film is schizophrenic in tone, jumping from lonesome melancholy to a kind of manic jubilation in successive sequences. As a student film, Tsangari is experimenting with different forms, using multiple formats, superimpositions and wild bursts of animation. Though an untamed work, it shows Tsangari’s interest in bodies as performance – as Petra has to turn her life into an act. She is generating memories for purchase, so everything she does, down to taking the hotel elevator, is mediated and posed for an imagined audience.
After The Slow Business of Going Tsangari took a nine-year break from directing, which she filled by continuing to operate the Cinematexas Short Film Festival, which ran through 2007, and producing the work of her friends, including Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Lobster). She returned to directing in 2010 with Attenberg, a strange, deeply affecting comedy about grief. Marina (Ariane Labed) is a young do-nothing forced into adulthood when she has to care for her father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) after he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The title of the film comes from a mispronunciation of the name of her favorite TV personality, David Attenborough. She watches Attenborough’s nature documentaries with her dad, seeing in them a baser, simpler way of living. Ariane and her best friend Bella (Evangelia Randou) test each other’s physical limitations. Like in Fit, the first shot is of a wet tongue kiss, ostensibly for Bella to teach the inexperienced Ariane how it’s done. But the kiss is as awkward as that on an exaggerated SNL sketch – and in fact Kate McKinnon would be impressed with the physical comedy on display. Aside from the smooching, Bella and Ariane engage in games of silly animalistic walks that they must perform in unison, with plenty of hooting, and rhythmic leg smacking. It is a way for Ariane to reaffirm her physical being while her father wastes away.
Chevalier was released this year in the U.S., though played most of the world in 2015. A comedy of male insecurity, it places a group of men on a yacht during a weekend getaway. Natural competition emerges between the group, but instead of keeping it to poker they turn their whole lives into a game. They decide to grade each other on everything they do in their lives, and each man is also tasked with inventing a new competition for them to compete in. They are graded on everything for how their wives speak to them on the phone to the amount of morning wood they have after a night’s sleep. It gets more and more out of control until they are speed building Ikea bookcases and entering blood pacts with guys who were previously casual business acquaintances. The bemused staff starts betting on the winners, and are ultimately not immune to the lure of competition. The film is basically a series of brilliantly clever sketches that play with notions of self-esteem. No matter how successful these men are in the outside world, there is always a kernel of doubt, that voice that says you are a failure, a fake. Chevalier weaponizes that voice and aims it at a group of middle-aged strivers, reducing them to their worst impulses.
Tsangari has shifted her style from the patchwork experiments of The Slow Business of Going to more handheld intimacy on Attenberg and Chevalier. She is getting closer to her characters as they deal with different varieties of death and self-destruction. Her peculiar comedies of humiliation are something like arthouse Farrelly Brothers, channeling the darker elements of our nature through disfigurements of the body. The next film she is developing, White Knuckles, is described as a “screwball action thriller” to star Labed from Attenberg. If my strained comparison holds up, I’m hoping it’s her Me, Myself, and Irene. But if it’s like her other work it will probably be something strange and new.