Alps (2011)

*. Alps can be thought of as a typical Yorgos Lanthimos movie, but it’s my least favourite entry in his oeuvre (as he is an art-house director I get to use that word). He’s very much doing his usual thing here, but I think with a lot less success.
*. What is the Lanthimos thing? Each of his films sets out to address some aspect of the human condition (common experiences or essential social relationships) that he then tears apart. Themes so treated include family (Dogtooth), love (The Lobster), justice (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and power (The Favourite). By focusing on their conventional and ritualistic components these themes become abstract. There’s almost always a sterile sex scene included in one of his movies (as there is here) that gets presented as an exercise in failed hydraulics. His characters are de-humanized and mechanical. Family and love becoming equally formalized games to be played by what are usually a cruel set of rules. In fact, actually falling in love is breaking the rules.
*. Alps does much the same thing with loss. The idea here is that a small group of performers are hired to take on the identity of lost loved ones, acting as replacements during a period of mourning. It is, I think, a fascinating premise, and one that easily fits into the Lanthimos model. Grieving has become a job, a performance, which does not make it any the less real. I can understand what he’s getting at. Just as with the family in Dogtooth we recognize the reality that even the most personal aspects of our lives are in fact controlled by social norms. Grieving parents or spouses are, like children, supposed to behave in a certain way. Why not make it into a form of theatre, complete with lines to be memorized and costumes to be worn? Just make sure you play your part right or you’ll be punished.
*. So, yes, a great premise. This is an interesting and important way of understanding grief. But Alps doesn’t realize much of its potential.
*. In the first place, it’s just plain dull. What makes it so? To my surprise, especially given Lanthimos’s other work, it’s totally uninteresting visually. Maybe the funereal colour schemes were deliberate, but the darkness and drabness is without any spark of life.
*. The other thing that makes it dull is the lack of a story to engage with. In his other movies Lanthimos at least gives us narratives that we can follow. But what is going on in Alps? The nurse (Angeliki Papoulia) is the central character, but I wasn’t even sure if she was sane, or to what extent she was hallucinating events. Or if that even mattered. When you’re left this much up in the air it’s hard to stay interested in what’s going on.
*. Another problem I had was the sense Alps gives of Lanthimos just treading water, or recycling material. To be sure every director has his favourite motifs and ways of handling things, but here the trademark elements — blindness, crazy dancing, passionless sex — just seem trotted out for no reason.
*. In his other films Lanthimos has difficulty representing emotional states, preferring to indulge his propensity to have characters act and speak robotically. In this film, however, we seem to have come out the other side of the zombie apocalypse with nobody being any the wiser. Everyone we meet appears tranquilized.
*. The message is, as usual, glum. Most of Lanthimos’s movies seem to boil down to the message that one has to play one’s role in life and not mess up. If you do mess up you’ll get a whacking. Of course this means your life will be a lie, but welcome to the human race. No one gets a refund. Enjoy the show.

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