Yourgos Lanthimos: ALPS (2011)


Playing Yorgos' games

In his new film, Alps, Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos departs from the hermetic family worlds of his previous film Dogtooth and his colleague Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg but with an equally oddball construct. This time the focus is on a small group who offer bereavement counseling in the form of role-playing. Members of the "Alps" group do impersonations of the deceased for a family as a stop-gap till they have come to terms with the dead loved one's absence. This works for you if you have enjoyed the previous films, but otherwise you may be left out in the conceptual cold. Lanthimos' deadpan oddity and self-confidence as a filmmaker, coupled with a high level of formal accomplishment, help carry things along, though the element of surprise is lacking for anyone who has seen the previous two and this film is also inherently gentler and less provocative than Lanthimos' last one, which was so much celebrated and discussed.

The premise is of course preposterous and no bereaved would be likely to agree to someone pretending to be their dead lover or relative. Though no one questions this, there is also no sign the ritual impersonations actually comfort the bereaved. But it's the essence of Lanthimos' method that peculiar premises are strictly adhered to and not questioned. He creates a world of firm control whose insanity makes us ponder the wisdom of human premises and rituals.

The Alps team is run by a menacing paramedic (Aris Servetalis of Lanthimos' Kinetta); as in Dogtooth names are avoided. The others consist of a young gymnast (the thin and supple Ariane Labed of Attenberg), her burly and demanding coach (Johnny Vekris) and a soft-spoken nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia, the eldest daughter of Dogtooth). The team members, who confer in the gym, can have several "clients" at once, even though they have day jobs, because they only see them a few hours each week. This is like a secret society, and they not only hide their activities from the world at large but must hide their mistakes from their chief, to avoid punishment. They also play games among themselves, and recombine in ways that touch on family issues, sex, and death. It can be troubling and confusing, and as Boyd Van Hoelj of Variety says, audiences "are left to connect the dots themselves." It's a good thing the team is small, or the recombinations and jobs could become very confusing.

Of Lanthimos' previous film Dogtooth, despite or perhaps because of its Un Certain Regard award at Cannes and its Best Foreign Oscar nomination, I felt compelled to write, "The conception contains fundamental flaws the audience can only accept if it wants to be provoked." And "The screenplay is patchy, consisting of a series of vignettes that do not build. " And I dismissively concluded, "The provocation of Dogtooth doesn't penetrate to a deeper level to make the enforced departure from everyday life justified." In short I was annoyed with the director and thought him a bit of a fraud. Tsangari's Attenberg was also very anoying but a bit more human and fun. I still felt unable to like it and quickly put it out of mind, except for the drawn-out scene of the two young women prancing on the crunchy gravel path, which one can't forget, despite its seeming pointlessness.

This time I'm ready to lighten up and go with the flow a bit. Lanthimos obviously has something going for him, and this is helped by his having a "team" of his own -- many of the actors and support people carry over from previous films of his. Lanthimos challenges us to look past the oddity and the constrictions to whatever it is he's talking about. So what is he talking about in Alps? First of all what in his Toronto review Eric Kohn called "the methodology of substitution" -- the ways the group sets up their bereavement-easing act, gathering information about the soon-to-be deceased, as the paramedic is able to do in the ambulance. There's also a big focus on constraints, the "actors'" constraint to their roles (along with a Brechtian recognition that role-play is only a gesture toward "reality"); the bereaved ones' obligation (if they are to survive, and because death is unavoidable) to accept their loss. To begin with, in the opening scene, we're introduced to control with the young gymnast's restriction under her tough coach to performing her routines to opera, when she would much prefer doing them to pop music. We see the need for structure and the difficulty of adhering to it; the value of ritual in confronting life's greatest challenges; and the extent to which people can buy into other people's fantasies, to their detriment.

Lanthimos is original and compels festival-goers and devotees of the challenging film to pay attention. As Kohn says, "Lanthimos' ability to make a twisted situation both credible and emotionally involving has no contemporary parallel." But Kohn also states a warning others also have sounded: that the director's "thematic consistency now runs the risk of rendering his frightening concepts more familiar than they should ever become." When the frightening becomes familiar it is no longer frightening and stops being stimulating to audiences. A filmmaker like Lanthimos runs the risk of generating a body of diehard fans and equally adamant foes. My aim is to be neither.

Alps, 93min, was co-authored with Efthymis Filippou, with cinematography by Christos Voudouris. It debuted at Venice and then was at Toronto, Pusan, and other festivals in 2011. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, showing April 20, 21, and 24, 2012. I previously published a shorter preview and this is the full version.

Kino Lorber is the US distributor and begins a US theatrical release in New York July 13, 2012.