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Review: Giorgos Lanthimos’ “Alps”

Giorgos Lanthimos’ followup to Dogtooth suffers from the same problems as his breakthrough.
Alps 2011

Giorgos Lanthimos' Alps is a gimmick brought to life, a conceptual idea of a social situation filmed with automatons and containing but an illustration of a concept. It is a skeleton construct, powerful as an idea on paper, flush with possibilities; on screen, the potential is retarded through a seemingly limited vision of what cinema can be. The film is named after a secret troop that meets in a gymnasium and sells a service wherein members take over the roles of recently dead people in the lives of their stricken loved ones.  Alps reveals this activity obliquely and it takes several stiff sequences before the film's heroine directly offers her service to a couple whose child has died.  The service then becomes clear: the actors repeat mannerisms and reenact dramatic sequences in the lives of others to ease the grieving process for the bereaved.

Like the house of repression and re-education in Lanthimos' Dogtooth, this is a situational powder keg.  And also like Dogtooth, the vision is strong and assured: Alps has an aesthetic confrontational power in its brilliant understanding of widescreen composition, which activates the entire space of the frame. Yet the treatment of its situation has a jokey-reveal quality—where everyone seems vaguely on the butt end of a condescending joke—unexpectedly connecting the dots between Sundance-quirk and international art-house tonalities. Alps does not explore why the actors pursue their unreal profession (or passion?), nor how the victims deal with the false replication, nor the differences (or similarities) between ostensibly normal social interactions and those staged by the Alps group. Exploration is cut short in favor of the conceptual impact of the idea: everything serves to film an example of an isolated idea rather than build a cinematic world which contains ideas interacting. These ideas, pitched deadpan, are often very funny—a tone and a result at which Lanthimos clearly excels. However, the ideas introduced are blueprints, and the film never attempts to build anything resembling plastic or dramatic cinema behind the gorgeous, splotchy swathes of half-focused color and movements that touch the corners of the screen.  Indeed, whatever I find lacking may not in fact be what the film wants to do—but what is left of Alps is unfair, a brainstorm rather than a film.

This review originally appeared in a modified form in our coverage for the 2011 Venice Film Festival.

Both films are very conceptual without a hint that it should be read as a literal interpretation of life. There are, however, clearly visible links to human behavior. Aren’t we constantly looking for a role to “substitute” someone who just has gone missing? Don’t we come up with this awkward behavior in respond to all these expectations around us? By the end of the film it’s hard to separate in which moment they act and when they live. In fact there is no real life left for viewers, it’s a long list of substitutions, one after another! Isn’t it a perfect snapshot of our reality?
A nice read, Kristina, thanks for sharing!
I definitely agree with you on this one, though I don’t share the same issues with “Dogtooth.” Or, at least, I take less issue with “Dogtooth” because of what I considered to be a more varied approach to the concepts than what is presented in “Alps.” I wrote about “Alps” in 2011, comparing it to “Shame,” another film whose approach I found to be redundant. In the comment section, I interacted with your post, which seemed to stir up some opposition from one commenter.
Thanks for the comment and the link, Carson. That’s an incredibly rich discussion you guys have in the comments section, and very valuable. Personally, I have no problem with “structural films” and in many ways prefer them — it’s just, as you hint at in your piece and conversation, there’s something stunt-like and gimmicky about the deployment of ideas in this particular film (and others, very sharp to find that piece on BROWNIAN which I now realize I had similar problems with). Again, it’s not that I’m “against” a particular form of art (or cinema) but rather particular uses of a particular form to my mind don’t actually “work,” that the ideas needed different form (or viceversa). I wish I could be more specific with this work but like you I saw it back in 2011…
Both of you wrote good reviews of this film. I remember it being likeable from a stylistic point. It captured an elliptical mood and tone well. Don’t know that I would go so far to call it a structuralist film. At least it didn’t cater to the overused slow cinema aesthetic, which turns me off very quickly. I found the lead performance by Papoulia to be wonderful. Is this a good film? It’s not so objectionable, and worth a second look.
Yes it’s certainly quite beautiful and inspires great discussion, for that reason alone worth seeing. As I hint above, while it doesn’t cater to overused slow cinema, it interestingly caters closer to a Sundance comedy aesthetic of quirky dysfunction.
But it is much more abstract than mainstream Sundance quirk. Actually, the film wasn’t very comedic to my mind. It was dark and just got darker as it progressed. By the end it felt downright tragic.
Yes I agree with you on the abstraction, which is interesting. I think it’s very much in the vein of Dogtooth, that is a deep, black humor. Very tragic but also ridiculous.
Overused slow cinema? What are we talking about here? Maybe the last year or two we’ve seen some higher profile films use longer takes, less dialogue, etc. but they’re still the anomaly.
Slow cinema is far from an anomaly. So much so that we can actually tag it with a name: “slow cinema”. A clear majority of contemporary festival films I’ve seen rely on it for aesthetic impact. In my opinion, it is a cliche. It can be done well and it can be done poorly, but a cliche it remains nonetheless.
I found the above stated conceptual nature of the film effective, if maybe only purely as a continuity of the “idées fixes” of Lanthimos & troupe and their previous two features. Maybe it is a “limited vision,” as Kasman writes, but I do think it powerful when considering that limitation as necessary to the performance of constraint: the uses and misuses of directing and redirecting ‘actors’ … the ever foregrounded impossible project of collaborating … identity, gender, friendship, family, etc. bent on breaking (maybe just breaking into dance?). I don’t know. As a parallel note, the elliptical ending uncannily and hilariously reminded me of the end of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which might be another way to rethink it all. Cheers.

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