TIFF 2011: ‘Alps’ offers more Buñuelian domestic absurdity but to mixed results
Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Written by Efthymis Filippou and Giorgos Lanthimos
The wild card in last year’s best foreign-language category at the Oscars was Giorgos Lanthimos’ sophomore effort Dogtooth, a provocative dark comedy about a husband and wife who raise their children completely isolated and void of any knowledge of the outside world. The Greek parable earned Lanthimos international acclaim for his satire of parental control gone mad, and suggested immense promise for a rising filmmaker. Alps bears many similarities to Dogtooth with its eerie-comic tone, stilted dialogue, canted camera angles and Buñuelian domestic absurdity, but his follow-up is at once a subtler and more suggestive presentation.
A collective calling themselves the ALPS goes into business to impersonate the recently deceased in order to help their beholden clients through their grieving process. Named after peaks of the Swiss Alps, their leader Mont Blanc explains, “no other mountain on earth could possibly fill in for the grandiose Alps, whereas the Alps could replace any other geographical location in the world.
Like Dogtooth, Alps is a deadpan, absurdist motion picture – a game of elaborate reenactments in which family relationships are front and centre. This time the perplexed relationships revolve around those who are not actually family members, but instead those who stand in for them. Where Dogtooth focused on characters trying to break out of condemned roles forced upon them, Alps revolves around those clinging onto false identities, perhaps in search of some satisfaction in their everyday lives. Alps is about swapping roles in life, and dealing with emotional crisis in strange and self-destructive ways. Alps argues that society is predominantly composed of bad actors. The question “Who is your favourite actor?” is repeatedly asked throughout the film. Lanthimos ably populates Alps with one-dimensional characters, who easily slip into other people’s personalities. Not much is known of our players but every so often he hints at their backgrounds, their families, careers and so on; but who’s to say what and who is real or not.
Sadly what was among the most anticipated films of the year is also somewhat of a disappointment. Alps marks no advance for the director in his career. The situations are just as absurd as in Dogtooth and the deadpan humour just as ridulous, but Alps doesn’t seem quite as compelling or profoundly disturbing as it should be. Alps doesn’t quite have the same creative panache, mostly because its best moments seem recycled from the director’s previous work. Lanthimos utilizes similar characters and odd humour but in far less effective ways than before. While there are a few standout scenes, the director repeats the same gags and to little effect: A prime example is the director’s observation of society’s obsession with pop culture, only again, these ideas were approached in more interesting ways in his past work.
Alps does away with many cinematic conventions, especially in its visual presentation. Much like Dogtooth, the way Lanthimos uses imagery to build his narrative is the most prominent aspect of the film. Cinematographer Christos Voudouris, who also lensed Dog, gives Alps a similar feel, with slanted angles, characters half out of frame or shot from behind and keeping his subjects always off-centre. The meticulously chosen fixed camera shots along with the deliberately dreary pace, deadpan dialogue, and expressionless acting holds a cracked mirror to the lack of any true emotion from the members of the Alps and reflects their distorted views on life.
Lanthimos’s austere study on human conditioning can be viewed as both a horror film or the darkest of comedies. While Alps is intricately constructed, its exploration of identity and performance just isn’t enough to sustain the narrative which at times drags on its heels. Alps pales in comparison to its predecessor, offers few surprises, and fails to develop its universe in any new, interesting and surprising ways for the filmmaker.
– Ricky D
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to the 18th. Tickets, schedules, and other information can be found on the festival’s website.