Directed by: Giorgos Lanthimos.
Written by: Efthymis Filippou & Giorgos Lanthimos.
Starring: Stavros Psyllakis, Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris, Ariane Labed, Aggeliki Papoulia, Erifili Stefanidou.
I have no idea what to make of Giorgos Lanthimos’ Alps. His last film, Dogtooth, was a brilliant, surrealistic film in the tradition of Luis Bunuel, about a father who has kept his kids locked in their large compound, and warped their view of the world – essentially by not letting them see it – and then having his work ruined by an outsider, he thought he could trust. That was a demented little film – violent, sexual, but it was also brilliant. And now for his follow-up, he made Alps. And I have no idea what it means.
When I recently reviewed Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, I said that I didn’t think that the movie had an overall meaning – or if it did, Carax deliberately doesn’t give the audience the information they need to piece it together. The movie is whatever you make of it. The difference between that film and this one is that while I think Carax was deliberately not giving the audience the information required to “figure out” his movie – and that the end result was freeing, because you could think whatever they hell you wanted to. But Lanthimos’ film is different – there is a meaning to Alps, or at least I think there is. I just don’t have the foggiest idea what the hell it is.
The movie is about a group of four strange people – a paramedic, a nurse, a gymnast and her coach. Together they make up a group that they call the Alps – which according to the paramedic, who is the leader, both has a meaning and does not. What they do is approach family members of the recently deceased and offer to be their dead family members for a few hours a week. A lot of planning goes into this, and the members of the Alps dress precisely how the family members tell them, and follow a very strict script of what to say – screw it up, and you’re in trouble. They say this will help the family deal with their grief, and eventually, they will no longer need the surrogates. The nurse, who is the main character in the movie, identifies a young promising tennis player, injured in a car accident, and decides when she dies, that she will take over the role. She then lies to the rest of the group, telling them the tennis player miraculously survived, and then approaches the family herself – and becomes the tennis player for them.
We know this will not end well. Just like the dysfunctional family in Dogtooth, the dysfunctional group at the center of Alps is held together with threats, intimidation and violence – and we know sooner or later it will all come crumbling down – as it must.
But what is the point of Alps? The premise of the movie is ridiculous – I cannot imagine anyone in real life coming up with a business like the Alps do – and if they did, I cannot imagine families just welcoming these strangers into their home to be their dead family members. Yet, you could make the movie into a bizarre comedy, or another exercise in surrealism like Dogtooth. This is the track Lanthimos takes, because the movie certainly isn’t funny. The actors all speak with a slow, steady monotone; there is no passion to anything they are doing from one scene to the next. But even surrealism normally has some sort of point – Bunuel often used it to expose the hypocrisy of the ruling class or of religions. Dogtooth looks at human nature, and fascism. But what is Alps saying?
I still have no idea. I even did something I rarely do before writing my own review – and that is read what other critics had to say, and I’m still at a loss. Because the family members of the dead are not given real roles – we never know how they feel about doing this or why they felt it necessary, the movie really isn’t saying anything about grief. It’s looking at the people who do the acting themselves. But what the hell does it mean?
Alps is equally fascinating and frustrating. I have to admit, I was drawn into its immense weirdness. I was never bored watching the film, and I always wanted to see where the movie was going next. Dogtooth was in many ways a triumph of screenwriting, but Alps is the better director film – more mysterious, darker, more impenetrable. I don’t always require a movie explain itself in full. I loved Holy Motors, which I’ve already talked about, and while I know that some have posted big, long theories on the meanings of such ambiguous films as Mulholland Drive or The White Ribbon, I don’t really care to read them. I don’t have to unlock all a film’s mysteries to like it. The difference is that I didn’t think unlocking the mysteries of those films was really the point of those films – you don’t need to understand the mechanics of what happened in Mulholland Drive or The White Ribbon to get lost in its mysteries, and the solution to those mysteries ultimately doesn’t matter. But I think they matter in Alps. Watching the film, I kept waiting for a light bulb to go off in my head – the moment when things become clear, or at least clearer. And that moment never came. I was fascinated by Alps all the way through – I think I’ll probably watch the film again, perhaps multiple times. But I still have no clue what the hell the movie is about.