Saturday, March 03, 2012

Film Comment Selects: Giorgos Lanthimos's "Alps"

Directed By: Giorgos Lanthimos
Written By: Giorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Aggeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Aris Servetalis, and Johnny Vekris.
Director of Photography: Christos Voudouris, Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis, Production Designer: Anna Georgiadou

Alps screened at part of Film Society’s Film Comment Selects program. Kino Lorber will release the film theatrically later this year.

            Alps includes one of the least believable fight between a couple I’ve ever seen on film. The man and woman give little emotion to their prescribed, inanely written lines. When she knocks over a lamp, it feels like a direction instead of a moment of true emotion. And when she apologies and they embrace, my initial reaction was to laugh instead of cry. But this is also how Giorgos Lanthimos, the director of the film, wants us to feel. These are the worst actors ever, so why do they do it?

            Lanthimos made a splash in certain circles two years ago with his formalist tale of allegorical power, Dogtooth, a film that I found often went for shocks than more complicated truths. Alps, which has a less bizarre premise than Dogtooth, is also a bit more restrained in its shocks. But by avoiding less graphic material, Lanthimos instead finds more profound material as well. Alps not only challenges our current push toward more apparent virtual living, but examines how it works just like an addiction.

            I hate to spoil some of the fun of discovering what exactly is going on in Alps, but to discuss the film properly, I must at least give away the main premise, which is slowly revealed over the first thirty minutes of the film. So, reader beware, spoilers ahead! Lanthimos focuses on a group who call themselves the Alps. Their job is simple—when people die before family or friends think it is time, they take the place of them for a few hours a day. They wear their clothes, learn their likes and dislikes, and do their best to act like them, repeating their catch phrases or reenacting moments from their past. Our main character, a nurse (the characters only refer to each other by names of mountains), sets her eyes on a dying tennis teenager that has come into the hospital.

            How these families have such money to pay for this type of service, especially given the current economic crisis in Greece, does remain a mystery, though one that’s not of any particular concern. While films like Surrogate and Strange Days have challenged the idea of virtual life through a science fiction premise, Alps challenges us to the same philosophical premises—how we tend to live our lives outside of our own emotions and actions—and through a dazzling formalist style. Lanthimos’s hand appears in every shot, as he seems to pry into his characters’ heads, often through oblique, cryptic angles that often make us focus on characters outside the action of the scene. While the premise of Alps is certainly strange, the film is more loving of its characters than Dogtooth, and while some of the situations produce a bit of comedy (mainly at the group’s attempts to “act,” which come of rigid and awkward), Lanthimos treats his characters with respect in which we become more invested in, and thus find stronger meaning.

            By digging deeper, he finds instead a portrait of addiction more than anything else. The nurse (played pitch perfectly by Aggeliki Papoulia) decides to go behind the man running Alps in order to take more and more jobs. From their, Alps changes to a portrait of addiction more than anything else, except the thing our protagonist addicted to is trying to be something she’s not. Because Papoulia commits so thoroughly to the role, I found myself fascinated as she went into a downward spiral of danger, doing everything possible to be anything but her actual self (which is kind of an excellent way to describe addiction, no?).

            Not everything works perfectly in Alps, mainly due to Lanthimos’s desire to pack more and more absurdity without considering meaning. The young Ariane Labed is quite astonishing as a member of the group whose desire to is to dance to pop music as she practices her twirling instead of classic. However, trying to derive how this somewhat comic subplot fits into the rest of the film (especially given that it bookends the plot) seems too cryptic to fit in, chosen to add to the plot because aberrant behavior is all Lanthimos enjoys watching.

            But when Alps hits its stride, as we watch the poor nurse descend further from her real self and more toward the lives she rather inhabit, I found it easy to be swept up in the intensity of Lanthimos’s direction. We all create different lives for ourselves; they just do it in the literal sense.

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