Giorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, Dogtooth, divided audiences but earned him an international audience and an Oscar-nomination. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie features strange people who are acting strange because they’ve been cut off from society their entire lives. There are also moments of brief humor and a lot of moments of disturbing your brain apart. Lanthimos’ new film Alps shows the director using the same kind of characters and same humor but to far less effect and far more tedium.
A nurse, an EMT, a gymnast, and her coach are members of a team known as “Alps”. The EMT, who is the group’s leader and names himself “Mont Blanc”, says then name in no way reveals the purpose of the group and it sends a symbolic message of strength and because the Alps, unlike other mountain ranges, can never be impersonated. It’s a comically odd inspiration considering the group’s purpose is to provide therapeutic impersonation to those who have lost their loved ones. Rather than explain that premise in thirty seconds of exposition, Lanthimos needlessly draws out the revelation over the first half of the movie.
The lack of exposition is one of the marks of a film that’s unmistakably avant-garde. Alps does away with as many cinematic conventions as possible and thematically there’s a purpose. A question asked by the nurse (aka Mont Rosa) and Mont Blanc to other characters is “Who is your favorite actor?” The subtext of Alps is to point out the absurdity of performance and how we not only want people to avoid acting like themselves, but to be the people we’ve imagined. It’s a fair observation and worth considering, but it’s the only thing Alps wants to talk about and the subect isn’t strong enough to carry such a self-consciously bizarre movie.
I mentioned how the characters in Dogtooth act strangely because their entire reality has been readjusted so that the immoral and the irrational become acceptable and reasonable. Alps, on the other hand, takes place in the outside world but all the characters still act like they have Asperger’s syndrome. Everyone speaks in emotionless, disaffected voices like a cast of greek Curtis Jacksons. No one interacts in a way approaching any semblance of reality. It’s a world so off-kilter that the entire film may as well be shot with canted angles.
But this strangeness doesn’t make the movie stronger. If Lanthimos wants to center his entire movie on an idea and nothing else, he better make sure he has a damn good concept, but with Alps he doesn’t. The exploration of identity and performance isn’t enough to sustain the narrative especially when the pacing, acting, cinematography, and every other aspect fail to captivate the viewer. The strangeness of the characters sometimes generates a laugh, but it’s the equivalent of crawling through an endless desert and occasionally coming across a Dixie cup filled with water.
Dogtooth didn’t work for me as a film, but I think the characters’ personalities were justified by the reality with which they are presented. Alps seems like an unintended sequel where everyone in Greece was raised in the same fashion and then released into the wild to have awkward conversations with each other, have no semblance of realistic human behavior, and whose only purpose was to present a moderately interesting concept.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: