'Alps' Theatrical Review!Posted: June 20, 2012
Alps Press Screening Review
by Ryan Cummings
I have a confession to make: Dogtooth (2009) has been sitting, unwatched, in my Netflix queue (or quarry as my dad says) for over a year now. One reason is that there's too many movies in my queue to watch as it is but another is that it's a foreign film and foreign film means I'm going to have to read subtitles. Not that I get scared easily by multitasking, but when it's late at night and I have to decide between a film with potentially little to no plot or something that has reading involved, I usually go for the easier to digest of the two. So when I was enlisted to do a review for Yorgos Lanthimos' new film, Alps, I felt quite inadequate as a cinephile.
Dogtooh had won a prestigious Cannes award and was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film after all. It was my duty to have seen it so I could feel cultured and superior getting a look at his next film. Then I realized that maybe it was a blessing in disguise in that while the other reviewers would be swayed by their superior knowledge of film in general, foreign film specifically and Yorgos Lanthimos in particular (surely I was the only one who hadn't seen his entire life's work) I would be innocent of such biases and thus write a more objective review, better judging the actual worth of the film rather than being blinded by my love of quiet, art-house European movies. Now it can be nice when films live up to their stereotypes and Alps certainly does just that- being a very European film. Foreign films, it is true, are just more demanding of the viewer by their very nature (you have to read subtitles while at the same time take in the frame of the film itself). Then you have that slow moving, impressionistic tone complemented by quiet, intense performances that has become so synonymous with foreign film. Be forewarned: Alps is one of those films- albeit a pretty darn good one.
The plot is "folded in" as I like to say it but the basic premise is a Paramedic, a Nurse, a Gymnast and her Coach decide to create a service in which they hire themselves out as substitutes for dead people. They are enlisted by relatives, friends and colleagues of those who have passed on to dress the way the deceased dressed, act the way they acted and play through scenarios that had happened with their loved ones when they were still alive- a sort of twisted way in which to help with the grieving process I suppose. It is however some time before this becomes evident (if it ever becomes completely evident at all) and truly the focus is never on the business itself and the details thereof but rather on the four main people involved- in particular the Nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia) who doesn't always play by the rules put forth by the more militant of the group and self proclaimed leader, the Paramedic (Aris Servetalis). It's their personal, individual struggles that take precedence over the happenings of the plot but even these are difficult to delineate at times. For instance, it's confusing at first if the man you believe is the Nurse's father is her real father or if she is just playing another proxy.
The film is subtly voyeuristic with it's off framings and shallow depth of field rather than stylistically telling in any specific way. Often times you are stuck looking at someone's shoulder or the back of their head or at the very best, a flat profile shot. It's style is that it has no style. Instead the film must rely upon its content and in the case of ALPS the content delivers. It settles into what could best be described as fantastically and gratuitously realistic in the sense that you always have that aching feeling that what you're watching is too ridiculous and extreme to be believed- but then again, so is most of Quentin Tarantino's canon. Where Tarantino dresses everything up so nicely and puts a tag-line on everything to create more of a sense of entertainment (which is not to say one is better/worse or more/less right than the other) Yorgos has a different kind of courage and instead lets the story stand naked, injecting little to no "art" into his filmmaking process but instead letting things be what they may. At times this creates a confusing, lackluster atmosphere because seemingly nothing is happening. Not until a previous four minute conversation, for instance, regarding the characters' respective coffee mugs comes back to haunt our main character, the Nurse, and she ultimately gets caught in a lie as a consequence of it that you realize (or hopefully you should) the gradual importance of the mug conversation much earlier and the many other "disjointed," non sequitur and seemingly unimportant topics of discussion throughout the movie. This is something not often found in American film logic so often obsessed with cause and effect.
Another great example of this is the opening and closing bookend scenes (don't worry, it doesn't really give anything away). The film opens with our young Gymnast (Ariane Labed) performing a floor routine to the score of O' Fortuna from Carmina Burana. After claiming to be ready to perform to a pop song her Coach (Johnny Vekris) informs her he will break her arms and legs if she ever asks again because he knows when someone is ready for pop and she is not ready for pop. An odd way to open a film indeed but at the closing moments of the film, the Gymnast finishes her pop song routine, leaps into the arms of her Coach and tells him, "you're the best coach in the whole world." Right then you understand that it isn't about either moment separately but all the moments in between that have changed them from beginning to end. They're not arbitrary moments at all but specific glimpses at characters in motion- of people looking for something. That people sometimes look in the wrong places is a matter of happenstance and tragedy, but for a film where one could argue nothing really much happens (or happens clearly) there certainly is a lot going on underneath our characters' skins.
The depth hidden among the characters' lives is enhanced by the actors who uniformly deliver perfectly understated, tragically rich performances. Aggeliki Papoulia especially turns in a tour de force as she slowly unravels more and more throughout the film. Her downward spiral reminded me of the oft demeaned and demoralized females in Lars Von Triers' films. That we never delve too deep under their surfaces is an intentional ploy on the director's part to create a specific mood and dramatic effect, not a shortcoming of a film that's unsure what it's supposed to be doing with itself.
Now surely in an American version the plot would be more up front. There might be a story centered around these four characters starting the business in order to raise money for some specific purpose, either something shady or something altruistic for sure, and the main character would end up falling in love with one of the clients, etc. It's the perfect rom-com scenario: guy falls for girl hired to play his dead fiance in a sick proxy role playing game. Someone call Gerard Butler and Kathryn Heigel! Thank God we'll always have the better foreign version of the film though before Hollywood buys it for the remake and bastardizes it.
Make no mistake about it: this is not a movie conducive to most American audiences (or at least their stereotype). The pace is slow but steady and the scenes can be disjointed at times. Things can also get weirdly sexual and strongly violent in a heart beat so if you're not into unpredictable, slightly difficult to follow (elusivity of comprehension can be an attractive and engaging quality in a film in this reviewer's opinion), hard to digest, voyeuristic type narratives, then this movie is not for you. (That being said it's only a mere 84 minutes so it wouldn't kill you). However if you don't feel the need to be spoon fed your story, can stand to be patient enough for the bigger picture to come into focus and enjoy subversive, risky material (David Cronenburg came to mind several times during the screening) then I highly recommend giving Alps a look-see while I finally go check out Dogtooth. I promise this time.
Alps will open on July 13, 2012 at New York's Cinema Village and is expected to open nationwide in the following months.