Retro Review: Alps
The subjects of grieving and belonging provide fertile ground for director Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist and darkly comedic style.
This is the final film in our tour of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ very strange body of work. I enjoyed much of his recent film, The Lobster, but felt it came up short. His first critical success, Dogtooth, was much the same. Both employ a distinctly affected acting style punctuated with graphic sexuality and violence, and seek to use surreal settings to question society. In these films the absurdity grew too cumbersome, robbing their social critiques of resonance. In 2012’s Alps, he strikes a perfect balance and allows his emotionally crippled characters to feel alive and sympathetic.
The Alps is a group of four very odd individuals who offer (for a fee) grieving services in the form of impersonating lost loved ones. Mata Rosa (Aggeliki Papoulia, who also starred in The Lobster and Dogtooth) is a healthcare worker with a varied assortment of clients. In addition to caring for her widowed father, she moonlights as the deceased wife of a lamp shop owner, the betraying friend of an elderly blind woman who had an affair with the woman’s dead husband, and a young tennis star whose parents cannot accept has died in a freak accident.
This last assignment causes turmoil in the group since the leader, a co-worker of Mata Rosa, had forbidden her from taking the role, preferring to use the youngest member who is a gymnast instead. Mata Rosa lies to the group, telling them that the tennis star survived her accident, and then solicits a contract from the bereaved family secretly. This triple layer of deceit and role-playing begins to unravel her sanity and control over her personae.
A Different World
All of Lanthimos’ films seem to take place in a world that is strangely oblique to our own. There are different rules in place, and different social mores. Alps dives straight into this world with little preparation, showing us a place where extreme violence and casual sexuality are common and little remarked upon, but simple matters such as self-direction and personal preference are strictly controlled and jealously guarded. Early on we see the gymnast and her coach, both members of The Alps, have a violent and brutal clash over the matter of which type of music to use during a rehearsal. Mata Rosa comforts the young girl afterwards, but shows that this lack of autonomy is considered normal in this world, and that she’s just going to have to get used to it.
What separates this odd assemblage of freakish rules and behavior from Lanthimos’ other projects is the internal consistency of it. There is no breaking point where the absurdity he has piled up crumbles under its own weight and forces the audience to disengage due to inconsistency. Another key aspect is that the actors (though many are veterans of Lanthimos’ work) seem to fully inhabit this world instead of being props that the director moves around in order to fit his vision.
Strength of Character
Aggeliki Papoulia is fantastic as Mata Rosa. In The Lobster, she played the heartless woman and was viscerally engrossing, but never felt like a real person. She was rather another physical obstacle to prevent David from finding real love. As the eldest daughter in Dogtooth, she seemed to be play-acting the part of a classic Greek hero who must escape a dreary destiny. Lanthimos rarely gives his characters names, and that is a conscious decision that reflects their roles. They are archetypes. Eldest daughter is simply the eldest daughter. Heartless woman is a cold and vicious woman. There is no internal conflict for these characters. Only the outside movements and actions matter. In Mata Rosa (itself a stage name given by the leader of the group) we get a character seething with internal conflict. It gives the premise the necessary spark of life that elevates it above Lanthimos’ other works.
Mata Rosa is still a creature of her world. Papoulia does not break the conventions of her fantasy setting, and she is not an outsider. Her mannerisms are just as automated and stunted as everyone else, but she seems to be reaching a critical juncture. The fervor with which she throws herself into the tennis star’s life is terrifying and pathetically comic in places, but is fraught with imminent emotion. This character wants to feel something. She wants acceptance and unconditional love and the adulation of her parents and peers, but lives in a society where those words don’t describe a feeling, only an action. Love is a physical act in this world. Praise is a mere formula of words that seem divorced from any emotion.
Outside Looking In
As outsiders, we get that. I viscerally felt this disharmony in all three movies. These people lack something vital, not just in the story world, but in the very make up of their being. David lacks love, but also the emotional core that would make love meaningful. Eldest daughter lacks freedom, but also any understanding of what freedom even means or why it is desirable. Mata Rosa lacks acceptance, but she does not lack the understanding of what acceptance means for her. Finally we have a companion on our journey through these bizarre worlds Lanthimos has created for us.
As a film, Alps is stylistically a Yorgos Lanthimos piece of art. It is beautiful but tawdry, well shot in a languid manner that erupts in fits of violence and sex where the camera suddenly becomes close and voyeuristic where it had been aloof and distant. The music is eclectic and used as another tool to show how slightly alien this place is from our normal world. There is a morbid running joke about how the gymnast strongly wants to perform to a Prince song because she mistakenly thinks he is dead. The leader explains he’s still alive, which surprises everyone, because they all thought he was dead too. Everything in Alps is slightly off and different from the real world, but is just obliquely so.
Alps is my favorite Lanthimos film, and I think it succeeds on all levels as a film. It is stylistically sound, superbly acted, and has a strong premise that is hypnotic once it gets rolling. All that being said, it is a Lanthimos film, and many will find his style off-putting to say the least. The sex and violence is one part of it, but those aspects are symptoms of the larger hurdle: his films are deliberately difficult and slightly antagonistic. He is not a provocateur, but he is pushing the boundaries of the form in order to get a reaction from audiences. It is both a gut reaction and mental reaction. In Alps, he succeeds on both fronts, giving viewers something hard and emotionally fraught to gnaw on. It’s a great film, if one can stomach it.