Alps (2011, Yorgos Lanthimos)
One of the most indescribable movie experiences of the decade thus far, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth follow-up Alps is a fascinating, maddening piece of cinema, predicated on a truly terrific and haunting premise (a group of people, presented as though they are a sort of athletic team of Super Friends, pose as the recently deceased in order to supposedly transition families out of grief, an idea that quite unsurprisingly backfires in all possible directions) and staged upon an arid and forebodingly sterile Greek landscape of florescent lights, unwelcoming houses and large near-empty rooms. Lanthimos seems to have thought of the film as a perverse black comedy, but it plays out in a similar fashion to Spike Jonze’s first two films, only without Charlie Kaufman’s creative impatience — pretending to be a monument to quirk and Roald Dahl-like overactive imagination, it ends up being a sad and touching statement about the human need to reach beyond one’s own skin, to become someone else. It also, unfortunately, stymies its own potential in what seems to have been a quest to deliberately alienate its audience.
Which is not a thoroughly ignoble pursuit, and if we can shift gears into first-person for a moment (and a quick warning: this writeup is unlikely to be useful to anyone who hasn’t seen Alps, so go watch it on Netflix first), may simply play badly based on my own biases. The admission to make here is that the current cinematic fascination with melding the idea of acting and performance with real life is tiresome to me because I’m a bit of a stalwart for “story” and the open-ended “think about it, maaan” causes me more frustration than intrigue. Besides, it renders interpretation trickier; the film’s Kubrickian distance from its subjects and their absurdity means something entirely different if, in the world of the film, everything we see is “happening” as opposed to representing an unreliable reality. Alps gives us only just enough information to follow its general drift: we know what the Alps do, we know how intensely dedicated and complex their work is, and we gather that said work succeeds at times because so many of the people we meet are accustomed to the soullessness of a drab, witless society. Our respite, meanwhile, comes in the odd buried jealousies of Ariane Labed or the glorious ridiculousness of Aris Servetalis, even as the film stops short of allowing itself to become fully comic.
Finally comes a lapse in the bemusingly strange system we see come into being here, in the form of Aggeliki Papoulia, whose character becomes so confusingly attached to the somewhat juvenile fantasy world formed in her life that she essentially steals that life from another young woman, telling lies and laying a groundwork of myriad deceptions in the process. But the film leaves out many of the vital chunks in this story, apparently on purpose. Not fully knowing the nature of all of the relationships and motivations here actually limits the potential of even such a beautifully composed and acted film as this. It begins to blur the lines midway through between the rogue actions of this single character and the reactions and behaviors of the other characters; it is hard to fully know where to file each additional scene, which again is likely intentional. It certainly works better for me than either Certified Copy or Holy Motors because it plays with riskier emotions — dealing nonchalantly with death, loss and a level of yearning that those films skirt past in favor of smaller canvases.
Judging from other reviews, though, I read much of Alps completely differently than most viewers. The hospital tennis scene, for instance, struck me as moving and sad; the awkwardness of the sex played for me as more sweet than aggressive; and in general, to me the film seemed like it touched, if superficially, on grief and identity in ways that I found affecting. It’s also wittier than its dour reputation suggests; I laughed out loud at the moment when, after visually implying that he’s setting up a sex scene, Lanthimos instead gives us a haircut — a gag straight out of Robert Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand but still funny.
Maybe you all can tell me if this is a personal fault. I love surreal movies, I love straightforward story-driven movies, I love either with a hint of the other, but I get tripped up when a film picks up storytelling beats and wisps of structure and then doesn’t use them, which is one reason Blowup always irked me. (For instance: Papoulia’s character apparently lies about the tennis player’s death but surreptitiously takes her family on as clients, in part leading to her eventual dismissal. Why?) I understand we’re supposed to read these ambiguities as something to prod at and question but they serve to distract from the essence of what’s really interesting about the movie, for me, which would work better if either it went further with the psychological implications of such details or if it became a completely free-reign flight of fancy. Maybe I just don’t like midstream rule changes. Is this something I should get over or is it a legitimate criticism? Whatever the case, I have no problem calling this worth seeing and generally a good experience.