director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 04/24/2012 at Kabuki Sundance Cinemas, SF, CA
Alps is the latest film from Greek film maker/writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos. It played as part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, so even without knowing much about it, I was very interested in seeing it. His previous film, Dogtooth (2009), was one of the two best films that I saw on DVD last year, and I’ve been reading about the rise of Greek cinema and its strangely surreal nature.
Alps is not unlike Dogtooth in that it also deals with people and reality and does so in a darkly comic, somewhat disturbing tone. Whereas in Dogtooth, a father kept his adult children hemmed in on a property away from the rest of the world, a world that he portrayed with various falsities and lies to keep them at home, Alps is about people who strive to participate in the lives of others, playing roles of the recently departed. As part of a very formal yet probably unofficial troupe of four, each of the people attempt to fill roles in lives in which people have died. It’s part service and therapy, but it’s also a codependent fulfillment for the actors, particularly the woman played by Aggeliki Papoulia, who lose sight of themselves and their own worlds.
There is a plethora of absurdity and flatly delivered interactions. At one point the young gymnast of the group attempts to mimic Prince, but does so very shabbily, not being recognizable by her peers. The men tell her that Prince is not dead. She then argues that he is dead (you’re only supposed to imitate the dead.) Another sliver of a break from an understanding of reality.
The best scene, perhaps, is after Paloulia plays through a dialogue with a man in a lighting store, going over an argument, reeling lines as if from a script in flat, unemotional specificity. When the argument ends, they retreat to the basement and engage in a similarly stilted scene of sex. The man tells her, as he administers oral sex to her, to say something like “Oh, it feels so good. It’s like heaven.” But she gets it wrong and says, “Oh, it feels so good. It’s like paradise.” And he stops and corrects her. Even for the people who are reliving moments with a stand-in for a lost loved one, the scenes are denuded of emotionality. They are much more like going through the motions, but needing things to be a specific way.
My friend who I saw it with didn’t care for the film, finding it disturbing. The film has a subtle undertone of violence, from an early threat from the coach to the gymnast, the brutally bloodied body of the tennis-player teenager after her car crash, and a brutal smack in the face with a club towards the end. More than physical violence, though, the film plays in the area of discomfort and unease, with characters whose motivations seem to emanate from a different psychology. Would a family who’ve just lost a young daughter accept the offer of her nurse to play her role for a while? There is definitely a perverse quality in those who hunt like ambulance-chasing lawyers for opportunities to craft their art.
As the leader of the team anoints the group “Alps” because the Alps could stand in for any mountain, but no other mountain to stand in for the Alps. He of course takes Mont Blanc, the largest of the Alps for himself. I was brought to mind oddly of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) wherein a group of renegade young people pretend to be mentally retarded in some strange sociological or performance piece. While The Idiots never discuss what they do, there is this weird parallel of a troupe of people operating on society’s fringe in an ambiguous manner for equally ambiguous reasons.
Me, I actually liked the film. Maybe not quite as much as Dogtooth, but then again maybe so.