VideoVista have my review of Giorgos Lanthimos’s third films Alps.
Alps is part of a suite of films that began in 2009 when Lanthimos’s second film Dogtooth won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes film festival. Surreal, funny and utterly unlike anything else in contemporary art house film, Dogtooth tells of a pair of siblings who have been raised to believe that the world outside of their family home is a sort of dystopian nightmare. Much like Rolf de Heer’s incandescently brilliant Bad Boy Bubby, Lanthimos uses this set-up to explore not only the weird second-hand beliefs that parents pass onto their children, but also the oddness of contemporary life and how arbitrary our social conventions must feel to people not raised to accept them. This critique of contemporary morality and generational differences then stepped up a gear in Attenberg, a film by Athina Rachel Tsangari who also serves as Lanthimos’ producer on Dogtooth and Alps. Much like Dogtooth, Attenberg uses surrealism to draw our attention to the arbitrary nature of social mores but in a way that suggests considerably more anger towards the older generation. How are young people supposed to cope with a complex world when all their parents ever did was fill their heads with be-bop and David Attenborough documentaries. Alps is very much a part of the Dogtooth cycle but, unlike Dogtooth and Attenberg, it does away with the surreal imagery that made those earlier films so intensely eye-catching and different.
The film tells of a group of people who make a living impersonating the recently deceased. Initially, we are encouraged to look upon the gang as either crooks or amateur grief therapists, but as the film unfolds and we learn more about the characters, the reasons for the impersonations become increasingly strange and difficult to discern:
The root of the problem lies in Lanthimos’ decision to abandon the surrealism of Dogtooth and Attenberg in favour of a more realistic footing. In Dogtooth and Attenberg, the surrealism served not only to exaggerate the foibles of everyday life but also to locate the film within a context that was more symbolic and fantastical than strictly representational. This means that the audience is left stranded in a sort of philosophical ‘uncanny valley’ as the film is both too real to be metaphorical and too weird to be a representation of the real world. Neither a fable nor a drama, Alps is a hugely evocative mess of impenetrable feelings and oblique social observations that could have been a whole lot more.
Clearly, this is a film that is overflowing with ideas and I continue to think that Lanthimos and Tsangari are two of the most important filmmakers working today. However, I question the decision to shift to a more realistic register as I’m not convinced that the cinematic vocabulary of social and psychological realism can cope with the complex and frequently metaphorical nature of Lanthimos’ ideas. Still… a director whose ideas outstrip the visual elements of his film is a refreshing change to the current vogue for incredibly beautiful and well-made films that are completely devoid of new ideas.