Calling themselves the Alps, a group of two men and two women offer a service to those whose loved ones have recently died. Adopting the deceased’s look and mannerisms, they reenact moments from the person’s life to help the survivors with the grieving process. Consider it an extreme form of art therapy.
In the hands of a Hollywood sentimentalist, this premise could be used to ride a river of multiplex tears all the way to the Oscar stage. But Alps writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos is not only Greek (rather than Hollywood-American), he also happens to be the opposite of a sentimentalist. His last film, Dogtooth, centered on a mother and father who raised their children in perverse seclusion, forcing them to engage in daily contests and telling them if they leave the walled yard they’ll be torn apart by cats.
With its unusual setup, Alps chronicles another sort of deranged social experiment. Though grief is certainly an element at play here, in Lanthimos’ hands this becomes more of an exercise in eerie violence, impending dread and authoritative sadism. This is a filmmaker with Cronenberg’s curiosity and Kubrick’s cool touch.
The central figure in Alps is a hospital nurse played by Aggeliki Papoulia (a Dogtooth survivor). She belongs to the Alps along with a young gymnast (Ariane Labed), her older coach (Johnny Vekris) and their leader (Aris Servetalis), who calls himself Mont Blanc and is given to grand pronouncements and violent fits. For reasons that aren’t entirely spelled out, Papoulia’s nurse takes on a side job – “performing” for the parents of a teen tennis player who has been killed in a car accident – that unfolds in such a way as to have her rethinking her part in the entire enterprise.
I’d be lying if I said I was entirely clear as to who is playing what role throughout the film (in particular, the nurse’s relationship with her live-in father – if it is her father – blurs identity lines). Yet in essence this idea of identity confusion is central to the film. It’s partly why obscured vision is a recurring motif, from Lanthimos’ habit of avoiding his characters’ faces to the repeated sight of the nurse administering her father’s eye drops. As the nurse and her fellow Alps are forced to slip from one identity to another on demand, the movie becomes a commentary on the ways we often treat the people in our lives as actors to be directed. We may not give them exact lines or pieces of wardrobe, as happens here, but we expect specific behavior – and we turn on them when they go off script.
Even as I recognize such intriguing thematic implications, however, the clinical aesthetic of Alps keeps it at arm’s length. This isn’t to say it’s uninteresting – Lanthimos’ precise framing lends immediacy to each image, and in the manner of Dogtooth, we get a couple of unsettling dance scenes – but the movie is uninvolving in an odd way. No matter how strong the emotions on display or how much humanity Papoulia brings to her part, Alps still registers less as a drama than as a filmed scientific experiment. You feel as if you should be wearing a lab coat while watching it.