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April 2013

Alps

cast: Stavros Psyllakis, Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris, Ariane Labed, and Aggeliki Papoulia

director: Giorgos Lanthimos

93 minutes (15) 2011
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Alps

Giorgos Lanthimos is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most exciting directors working in Europe today. Ever since his third film Dogtooth (2009) carried off the 'Certain Regard' prize at the Cannes film festival, he and his collaborator/ producer Athina Rachel Tsangari have used a combination of surrealist imagery and dead-eyed social realism to map the psychological hazards of 21st century living.

In Dogtooth, Lanthimos presents childhood as a sort of psychotic dystopia run by tyrannical parents for the sole purpose of stunting their children's development and holding them in a state of perpetual helplessness. However, rather than constituting a critique of parental authority, Dogtooth is best understood as a reflection upon the arbitrary nature of social customs. For example, while we may find it odd to think that the word 'sea' might refer to a chair, the only reason we associate the word 'chair' with actual chairs is because that is what our parents raised us to think. Given that words have arbitrary meanings, why can't every other aspect of our social reality? Why can't headbands signify cunnilingus as they do in the film?

Produced by Lanthimos but directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, Attenberg (2010) both advanced and softened this critique by suggesting that, while much of human society is a ghastly and unnatural pretence forced upon us by the process of socialisation, some parents might choose to rebel against society's arbitrary conventions and raise children who are as alien as they are beautiful. Attenberg's lead character was raised on a steady diet of bebop and David Attenborough documentaries that leave her completely unprepared for the sort of responsibilities that descend upon the young when their parents grow old and sick. Trapped between the need to grow-up and the desire to return to the whimsical bubble of her childhood, the film's lead character struggles, rebels, and eventually decides to go her own way by rejecting both the surreal walled garden of childhood and the spiritual desert of adulthood.

Lanthimos' latest film Alps returns yet again to this vision of society as a tapestry of ill-considered and arbitrary fads. However, while Dogtooth and Attenberg used surrealist flourishes to both lighten the mood and draw our attention to the inherent absurdity of social conventions, Alps strikes a darker and less whimsical pose in an effort to discover why it is that people bother to follow social conventions in the first place.

The film takes its name from a group of people who decide to set up a business posing as the recently deceased. Though the group's fondness for codenames, training montages, and extensive background checks, may be reminiscent of a heist movie, the Alps are actually a legitimate business in so far as they are hired by the bereaved themselves. Initially, the assumption is that these performances are therapeutic in nature and designed to help people gain some sense of closure but, as the film unfolds, the rationale for the performances becomes less and less obvious.

The first thing that strikes you about this plan is that the Alps are all terrible mimics who neither look nor sound anything like the people they are supposed to be replacing. Even worse, the Alps appear physiologically incapable of delivering decent performances, meaning that while they may be saying the same things that the deceased used to say, they say them in a manner that is devoid of any emotion. For example, one of film's standout moments comes when an Alp is recreating sex with her character's husband but when the time comes for her to deliver a line of dialogue, she makes a mistake prompting her client to raise his face from her crotch and dispassionately inform her that she should have said that she felt as though she was in heaven... not paradise. If the deadpan nature of the Alps' performances is amusing, the equally deadpan reactions of their clients are downright horrifying.

As with Leos Carax's extraordinarily brilliant Holy Motors (2012), it is not immediately clear why these performances are actually taking place, as the Alps are never called upon to help their clients break new emotional ground, or find a sense of closure. Indeed, rather than helping their clients to overcome their grief, the Alps appear to be in the business of supplying a ghastly emotional holding-pattern in which memorable moments from a relationship can be played and replayed until all joy and meaning are lost forever. As grim as this image may be, its implications are even worse as the film seems to be suggesting that love is little more than an intense emotional attachment to a particular set of speech patterns and clothing choices. As in Hitchcock's immortal Vertigo (1958) it seems not to matter whether your loved one is the person they claim to be as long as they keep wearing the same old clothes and saying the same old things.

Having suggested that there is no functional difference between genuine human sentiment and fake displays of emotion, Lanthimos sets about exploring the tension between truth and falsehood in two beautifully realised subplots.

In the first, one of the Alps decides to offer her services to the family of a car crash victim. Initially, the relationship works quite well as the Alp slowly acquires more and more of the accident victim's tics and habits. However, rather than sticking rigidly to the lines of dialogue fed to her by the parents, the Alp begins relaxing into her part and improvising on the assumption that the accident victim would doubtless be doing certain things were she not laid up in hospital. Confronted by a daughter who now seems a lot more substantial than a succession of dialogue choices, the parents begin to sour on the idea of a fake daughter and eventually throw the Alp out into the street. Somewhat wonderfully, this act of familial defenestration is the only time in which we see any genuine emotion... not only is the father angry about what his fake daughter has become but the fake daughter is now delivering pre-scripted dialogue imbued with real human emotion.

The second subplot also explores the tension between familiarity and freedom by following a trained gymnast as she attempts to convince her coach to allow her to perform to pop rather than classical music. Told to keep her mouth shut because she is not yet ready for pop, the gymnast attempts to change her coach's mind using a series of carefully choreographed displays of affection. However, because the coach is an Alp and well accustomed to half-arsed playacting, he remains utterly unmoved until the final minutes of the film when the gymnast performs a flawless routine and then collapses into her coach's arms claiming that he is the greatest of all coaches despite a look of absolute desolation on her face.

Clearly, Alps is a hugely complex and ambitious piece of filmmaking that drills down into fundamental dishonesty of human relationships in search of something true. Unfortunately, while Alps does an absolutely splendid job of encouraging the audience to reflect upon their lives and relationships, it is not particularly clear what it is that Lanthimos is trying to say. Indeed, if love is nothing but a sense of familiarity then why would it matter that you were trapped in the familiarities of another person? If all human relationships are built on lies, why should we yearn for honesty? What is the desolation on the face of the gymnast supposed to represent?

The root of the problem lies in Lanthimos' decision to abandon the surrealism of Dogtooth and Attenberg in favour of a more realistic footing. In Dogtooth and Attenberg, the surrealism served not only to exaggerate the foibles of everyday life but also to locate the film within a context that was more symbolic and fantastical than strictly representational. This means that the audience is left stranded in a sort of philosophical 'uncanny valley' as the film is both too real to be metaphorical and too weird to be a representation of the real world. Neither a fable nor a drama, Alps is a hugely evocative mess of impenetrable feelings and oblique social observations that could have been a whole lot more.



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