Alps: Venice Film Review

Alps -2011 - H
Caustic, well-done Greek cinema of the absurd is strictly for modernist fans.

Yorgos Lanthimos' offbeat film focuses on a club whose members are paid to take the place of a family's dead relative.

Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos’s caustic fourth feature, is as bizarre and elliptical as Dogtooth and Kinetta, and like its offbeat predecessors has an inexplicable power to draw the viewer into its hermetic web of inhuman relationships. This fine example of cinema of the absurd focuses on a bizarre club whose members are paid by family of the deceased to “stand in” for their loved ones, living in their homes and reciting the dead person’s words by rote. Given the emotional distance the director puts between his characters and the audience, Alps is a strictly intellectual game that will leave most viewers in the cold. After festival audiences puzzle over it, it should eke out highly selected art house patrons looking for something different.

Run by a rigid paramedic (played more like a paratrooper by Aris Servetalis of Kinetta) whose code name is Mount Blanc, Alps holds its meetings in a high school gym. Members are a dippy nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia, who played the older daughter in Dogtooth), a young gymnast (Ariane Labed, the girl from Attenberg) and her sadistic coach (Johnny Vekris). For no apparent reason, the women subjugate themselves to the violent men, who threaten to break every bone in their bodies if they disagree with any of their absurd premises. Any deviation from club rules is brutally punished.

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Laughter is the only possible response to the opening scene, in which the gymnast pleads with her unbending coach to let her rehearse to pop music. (He says she’s not ready.)  Next, in an ambulance, the paramedic torments a girl who has been in a serious car accident with questions about her favorite actor. This turns out to be Jude Law, which shows the kind of glancing comedy that makes all the weirdness painfully familiar. When the girl eventually dies, the nurse proposes to her grief-stricken parents that she take their daughter’s place from time to time.  Absurdly, they accept.

Unlike other “substitutions” (for example, the coach pretends to be a blind woman’s dead husband in one scenario), the nurse doesn’t tell Mount Blanc about this job. This act of disobedience will come back to haunt her in a cruel finale that finally comes round to the point, as she flails out desperately and no longer comically for what everyone is missing (call it love or belonging or authentic feelings—viewer’s choice.)

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Just as the awkward re-enactment of crimes in Kinetta brings an over-layer of movie-making to the mix, the Alps members are excruciatingly bad actors when they recite phrases in a monotone, like “this mug is for you, Grandpa” or (in a compromising moment between the nurse and a lamp salesman) “don’t you stop, it feels like heaven.” How words without feeling could possibly console anyone’s grief is one of the film’s chief paradoxes. Likewise, any attempt to sympathize with the two women is short-circuited by Labed’s wide-eyed masochism as the gymnast and Papoulia’s nutty behaviour as the nurse. Laughter is an option, on occasion.

Extreme close ups, handheld camerawork and very short focus lens gives the film a cheap homemade look which is part of the its depressing aesthetic.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 2, 2011.
Production company: Haos Film
Cast: Aggeliki Papoulia, Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris, Ariane Labed
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
Producers:  Athina Rachel Tsangari, Yorgos Lanthimos
Director of photography: Christos Voudouris
Production designer: Anna Georgiadou
Costumes: Thanos Papastergiou, Vassilia Rozana
Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Sales Agent: The Match Factory
93 minutes.