Holy Mother of God. This guy is nuts.
For fans of Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, his new movie, Alps, is another excursion into extreme weirdness. Experiencing his films is like going into an intellectual version of a creepy amusement park fun house, but even as his movies are philosophical, they don’t feel like cerebral exercises. They really involve ideas and emotions, and they are deeply surreal and subversive. Any way that I try to describe what happens in this movie is going to either give you too much information, which you don’t want if you want to experience its mysteries, or going to leave you blinking. There is no middle way.
Alps is really is an exploration of how people deal with loss. If I try to recount the plot, it will make no sense to you. But the way it happens is quietly, devastatingly powerful. It is disorienting, shocking, darkly funny and ultimately quite moving.
Lanthimos is the one filmmaker today who creates daring and inventive high concept films about alternative universes of thought set in the most modest circumstances. He truly explores the dark recesses of human nature, of the way we use language, of the power structures between human beings, and he questions certain givens of human nature, like why accept grief? It’s not “I’m going to the future/my memories/the past and I’ll be right back”.
As I sat, mouth agape, watching Alps, I could imagine some hapless Hollywood producer trying to turn its high concept into a remake with Steve Carell, perish the thought. For Alps is about human grief and a group of people who try to assuage it, in the most literal, insane way possible.
In Dogtooth two parents control their children’s lives so much they have to reinvent language to keep the children safe from the outside world and compliant with their power. In Alps, an equally, if not even more disturbing movie, for the first half hour, the audience is as disoriented as in Dogtooth, since Lanthimos and his writing partner, Efthymis Fillipou, would rather die than write one word of exposition. They string tenuously related scenes together, each weirder than the next, making the audience do the work, until at a particular point, it all falls into place with the utterance of just one sentence. It is a testament to their writing skills that they can keep the ball in the air for so long and then make everything clear with just one line. In fact, it is downright scary.
The idea is absurd: Can you substitute the dead? Can you avoid grief? We all know you can’t, but this doesn’t keep these people from trying.
A rhythmic gymnast trains with a sullen coach. He forces her to do her routine to Carmina Burana, which she hates. She wants to do pop. He says she is not ready for pop. When she quietly complains, the coach gives her a piece of lip so graphic and violent it is both funny and truly shocking. There is only one scene of graphic violence in the film, and it is modest yet quite horrifying, because it both amply foreshadowed and totally unexpected. However, the violence people do to their feelings is constant. As in Dogtooth, language here is subverted. Most lines are delivered without affect. Sometimes people speak in clichés, which devoid of their right context, sound robotic. In a way, this is how grief and mourning feel like. When you are in pain, everything people say sounds hollow, like a bad Hallmark card.
A thread that runs through this film is people’s attachment to pop culture, to Hollywood stars as substitutes for real intimacy and emotion. People get close to each other by inquiring about favorite movie stars or pop singers, as if only those bigger than life icons can carry the weight of our emotions.
Alps is, then, about real feelings and fake feelings. In fact, this movie is a comedy about a girl who deals with her feelings and gets what she wants, whereas her friends who can’t deal with sadness, don’t.
Lanthimos gets away with certain pretentious stylistic flourishes because of his masterful control of tone, a style uniquely his, perverse and savage but not without grace; and his stories, which are like a philosophical Twilight Zone. This said, do not think that his films are boring or too intellectual. They are like unfathomable mysteries with a very dark, deadpan sense of humor that pushes towards the absurd.
Alps should keep you talking for hours on end. If only they would show it in theaters. Let’s hope they will.