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Alps (Αλπεις – Alpeis) – Art 5/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 4/5
Some people like their horror with atmosphere, others like appalling butchery, or rivers of gore. Giorgos Lanthimos likes it light in weight and darkly in humor. Nobody in his previous brilliant film Dogtooth, or his latest offering Alps is tortured in any meaningfully horrific way, and nobody dies for sinister reasons. Lanthimos still has a Hitchcockian pulse coursing through his veins, and both films pose violent and psychologically disturbed sociopaths against spritely women whose connection to reality is severed by physical and mental walls. While Alps may not be hardly as funny as the absurdity in Dogtooth – a film where a family’s father locks them on a compound and elaborates a sanitary linguistic explanation for the profane things that get over the wall – it retains the sinister totalitarian airs.
Similar to Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, the plot in Alps is a very thin apparatus where Lanthimos’ long silences and meditative shots try the patience of the 21st century audience. The film could run 45 minutes, if edited in Los Angeles. Though the plot is thin, the narrative is more robust, and requires a bit more questioning. One character (played by Aris Servetalis), the obsessive-compulsive leader of a troupe of people who act as shoddy doppelgangers for the recently deceased, in order to help the grieving process of their relatives, has a strange affinity for a cup that says “Los Angeles” on it, and American pop culture more generally. His annoying and odd obsession with the cup, and other instances color how his morbid fascination with Hollywood and perhaps the film Vertigo informs his thinking on this whole doppelganger endeavor.
The center of the story is actress Aggeliki Papoulia, also the center for Lanthimos’ previous film, Dogtooth. While a key member of the “Alps” troupe of stand-ins (so-called for a bunch of fruity reasons I don’t care about), she works by day as a nurse, receiving many of the patients brought by the leader of their gang, who works as an EMT. This is ostensibly how they find their clients. Papoulia leads a vapid and boring existence, drained of any meaning or very much feeling. Her docile and turtle-like aging father is content to waste away in a little chair mousily reading his nonsense. As she’s diving into the fictitious lives and skins of the recently deceased, it becomes her only hobby, bringing her a lacking sense of reality, albeit someone else’s. There is an extremely awkward reaction in the loved ones paying for the service, who are as unsure how to deal with this bizarre profession as they are their loss. Papoulia begins breaking the rules by getting personal, even having sex with clients, recalling that the profession of acting was traditionally associated with prostitution in some cultures. Her empty life is fulfilled by those she assumes.
Elsewhere in the Alps troupe, a suicidal gymnast/dancer (Ariane Labed) desperate to please her grouchy control freak instructor (Johnny Vekris, also in the troupe) is disciplined severely by the two totalitarian obsessive men leading the ‘business’. In common princess fashion, Labed wants to hang herself after being rejected by her dirty old man dance instructor who has a god-like grip over her, being saved at the last minute by Papoulia. Labed’s intense desire for her beauty and performance to be validated is given a hint of superficiality by her character’s desire to be permitted by the instructor to dance to empty pop music. As Papoulia is gradually swallowed by the rich and freakishly fun emotions drawn from this Hitchcockian profession, her favor wanes after crossing rigidly delineated lines of error, inciting the insanities in her troupe leader. Thereafter, Labed’s intense need for sexual redemption sees her fortunes wax in the eyes of Servetlis, and her dirty old man instructor. Soon, Labed is replacing Papoulia on certain ‘missions’.
As punishment, Servetalis gives Papoulia a supposed omen, where if a gymnastic stick turns blue, the portents are mildly bad, and red portends truly bad. He whacks the fuck out of her in the face, drawing blood, kicking her out of the ‘Alps’ troupe (a bit of Lanthimos’ absurdism for ya). The undying need to grasp on to some meaning boils Papoulia’s disorders into a right proper breakdown, first trying to seducing her turtle-looking father by assuming the life/role of her deceased mother, then she tries to get a bit freaky on the dance floor with the homely woman her pa’s been seeing, assuming the role of her father, and then she vandalizes the home of a former client out of desperation to assume the identity of their deceased daughter. It’s the most action in a very slow film, and winds everything down in a strangely unsettling conclusion.
I don’t see Alps as a letdown artistically from Dogtooth, but comedically it varies greatly in a negative way. The long takes and use of silence in Dogtooth was made more bearable by the volatile bursts of silliness that are mostly lacking in Alps until the end. The pressure valve builds steam for far too long, and would lose many audiences. The characters didn’t require too much out of the actors, and Lanthimos’ style is for an unnerving amount of stoic creepiness anyway, but Papoulia and Labed both gave emotional performances that are remarkable in different ways. Papoulia’s character in both Dogtooth and Alps is a naive explorer who suffers blunt trauma to her face, initiating the final acts. Her turns in both were enjoyable, funny, and insane, and I’d like to see more from her.
Alps is more broccoli than Cheetos, so viewers unfamiliar with European art house cinema might be totally lost with this one, whereas Dogtooth had a few things to cling on to. Lanthimos is a very capable auteur, but this wasn’t hardly the best he’ll offer us.