Arts and Culture

'Alps'

Odd characters perform odder jobs in this possibly genius, possibly hack film. Opens Friday in Vancouver.

By Steve Burgess 27 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other Friday on The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Perhaps you don't like your job. Director Giorgios Lanthimos is here to tell you it could be worse. His new film Alps opens Friday at the Vancity Theatre. Whatever other reaction it may inspire, I suspect it will make some reconsider a career in medicine -- or theatre.

Lanthimos' last film Dogtooth won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It was by all accounts a fascinating oddity, a description that could certainly be applied to Alps. The question this time is whether Lanthimos has finessed that delicate balance between the fascinating and the simply odd.

Alps introduces us to a small group of characters -- a nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia), a paramedic (Aris Servetalis), a gymnastics coach (Johnny Vekris), and his student (Ariane Labed). They belong to an organization which their leader names Alps, reserving for himself the code name Mont Blanc (it's the highest Alp). Even to describe the plot of Alps is to play spoiler, since part of the initial intrigue is figuring just what these characters are planning. I'm surely not the only one who guessed terrorism.

But Lanthimos is not up to anything so mundane as that. The group is providing a professional service. Taking advantage of their positions inside the hospital to gather pertinent information on the recently deceased, they then offer themselves to the bereaved as substitutes, playing the roles of the dead to fill the new void in the lives of the grief-stricken. It's role playing or perhaps grief prostitution, occasionally overlapping with the traditional sort.

Worthy overkill

For the jaded cinephile a movie like Alps possesses innate charms. It's a pleasure to realize you have no clue what will transpire because you are on completely unfamiliar ground. With no points of reference you can't use standard movie logic to guess what's coming. Besides, most of the time you are focusing too hard on figuring out what you're seeing to worry about what's next. Plot summary aside, there are still parts of Alps that left me mystified -- not just about Lanthimos' thematic intentions but on the more basic level of "WTF?"

Alps may inspire extreme reactions. It's genius! It's pretentious junk! In the end I appreciated some aspects of Alps without actually liking it much. Leaving audiences cold seems to have been at least part of the point -- for most of its length Alps is more reminiscent of Saskatchewan. With its thoroughly understated performances, monotone dialogue, and flat lighting, much of the film plays out like a postmortem heart monitor. If nothing else I'd like to shut Transformers director Michael Bay in a locked room and force him to watch Alps, making sure to have a gas oven or a coil of stout rope sitting in the corner.

Although the film eventually builds to a display of genuine emotion and even violence, Lanthimos pays the price for keeping audiences at an emotional remove for so long. Alps plays out like an exercise rather than a real human drama. I have heard Alps described as a critique of the acting profession. If so it seems, pardon me, overkill. It can certainly be read as an examination of grief, longing, the desperate need to belong, and even the mechanics of domination and manipulation. And it can be appreciated as a truly original piece of cinema. For a lot of movie buffs in the grip of another torpid superhero summer, that may be enough.

Alps opens Friday night at 6:30 p.m. at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver. Details here.  [Tyee]

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