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Venice 2011. Performance Studies

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

Alps, like Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth before it, is a gimmick brought to life, a conceptual idea of a social situation filmed with automatons and containing but an illustration of a concept.

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, so that several oddly stiff sequences go by before the film's heroine directly offers her service to a couple whose child has died.  The service then becomes clear: the actors mechanically repeat mannerisms and reenact dramatic sequences in the lives of others to ease the grieving process for the bereaved.

Like the house of family ritual, repression and re-education in Dogtooth this is a situational powder keg.  Yet its treatment is inexplicably Sundance-quirk at the international art-house level; Alps does not explore why the actors pursue this 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.  All is pitched at a deadpan, humorous level—often very funny, as with Dogtooth—vaguely condescending of its characters, who are always bordering on being the butt of a joke, and always serving to film an example of an isolated idea rather than build a cinematic world which contains ideas interacting.

Shot with a brilliant understanding of widescreen composition (the opening sequences is of rhythmic gymnastics, a ribbon rippling around the long frame), activating the entire space of the screen, Alps has graphic, aesthetic confrontational power but fails to confront its own ideas.  They are introduced as if they are blueprints, and the film never attempts to build anything remotely resembling plastic or dramatic cinema behind the gorgeous, splotchy swathes of half-focused color and movements that touch the corners of the screen.

Indeed, this thing I find lacking may not in fact be what the film wants to do—but what Alps is left with is unfair, a brainstorm rather than a film.  Everything has a jokey-reveal quality—the cryptic revelation of what it is this group of people do, but not how they do it, why they do it, what it means to them or others—it is but 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.

Thanks for the review. When a premise overwhelms the narrative, it reminds me of the term paper that says “good ideas, but this needs work”.
I missed Dogtooth, but you’ve nailed what is apparently a tendency in this Greek school of contemporary cinema; this was exactly my impression of Attenberg, directed by Lanthimos’ colleague Athina Rachel Tsangari. I never felt like the clever ideas in the screenplay formed anything very human or compelling, then was annoyed to realize “this thing I find lacking may not in fact be what the film wants to do.” The idea was to show humans clinically; but to me it showed hipster-smug, too-clever screenwriting clinically. Now the heroine is french kissing her friend. Now for some reason she’s hitting her. Now she’s acting like an ape. But none of it adds up. “Vaguely condescending,” “unfair” indeed.
I think the film had a good atmosphere and was very well-made. Oblique, but I guess that’s no reason to fault it. It didn’t seem too smug or condescending to me. Just a portrait of a detached world gone a bit mad.

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