Greek New Wave spearhead Yorgos Lanthimos' "Alps" is at once a more ambitious and slighter work than his previous film, the much-celebrated, bizarrely Oscar-nominated "Dogtooth." Conceptually, it spirals to the levels of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” reaching for similar theatrical metaphors as a way of prying into the modern ailment of dispassion and disconnection. Yet, at the same time, though this isn’t a fun film to watch in the slightest, Lanthimos has slackened his constricting tone from the film before. Thus, the film doesn’t leave quite the visceral imprint, and moments feel wasted and, shockingly enough, boring. Even so, it’s a strong, mind-bending movie, maybe a bit too vague but probably all in the interest of leaving endless possibilities wide open.
It’s clear throughout that no other director could have made this film, from the head-scratching scenario to weird and consistently offbeat comedy to the deliberately stilted direction to the inevitable descent into sad sex, harsh violence, and despairing madness. Lanthimos follows four people who, oddly enough, offer themselves to pretend to be people who died so that those who lives were impacted by the deaths can resolve their grief. This sounds like a ridiculous and emotionally destructive idea, but, as you might expect, there is a market for it. The whole operation is controlled mercilessly by an EMT who goes by the code name Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis), which is the biggest of the titular mountains (used as a group name because it is considered essentially nonrelated to the practices of the “substitutes”). The others include a gymnast (Ariane Lebed, incredible in “Attenberg,” extremely disturbing here), her abusive and singleminded coach Matterhorn (Johnny Vekris), and Monta Rosa (Aggeliki Papoulia, looking a lot older here than in “Dogtooth”), who works in the hospital with Mont Blanc (and whose relationship with him is as strange as anything in this movie).
Monta Rosa is the audience’s cipher into this world, though not the single POV, and not a very clear cipher either. She lives a relatively mild existence, rooming with her father (Stavros Psyllakis) and seeming to get a sort of pleasure out of some of the jobs that she takes on (as an angry wife, as an adulterous friend, and, most prominently and dangerously off-the-clock, as a teenage tennis player). But it’s all speculation, as it could be that she’s a transitory figure, substituting for her father (?) and not living anywhere in particular. What comes towards the end fits under this interpretation, though the eventual explosion could be just the typical sort of Lanthimos aberration.
Little is known about the other members of ALPS, and how long the group had been around before being christened that. We do know that the gymnast is suicidal, fragile, and wants more than anything else in the world to perform to pop music, and that Matterhorn the coach feels some sort of lingering affection for his dead barber. The rest is a mystery, and all we know about certain characters in the film is who their favorite actor is, a trait that reflects Lanthimos’ obsession with acting and popular culture. Outside of the narrative growth, “Alps” doesn’t represent much of a push for Lanthimos, more of a refinement of what he did before. For example, the ending is excellent here whereas in “Dogtooth” it came as too much of a sudden shock. There seems to be more here than in that film too, and multiple viewings could help mine all of the possible implications. And even if it’s familiar for Lanthimos, that doesn’t mean it isn’t original and interesting overall. I’d like to see more of a spin on or rethinking of his style next time out, but this will certainly do for now. B+