Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: Alps

The Grieving Process

Dogtooth was, for this viewer, the very definition of a pleasant surprise. Having a few euro to spare when choosing tickets for the Dublin Film Festival a couple of years ago, I impulsively booked one for Giorgos Lanthimos' decidedly mental breakthrough on the strength of a brief glance at the synopsis. The film itself was startling: bold, hilarious, distinctive, shocking. It held up to a rewatch, but that initial viewing was revelatory.

The biggest problem with a pleasant cinematic surprise is that anticipation is unavoidably increased for the director's next film. Such is the case with Alps, Lanthimos' follow-up to his previous cult hit. From the playfully bizarre opening titles, this is very clearly the work of that new Greek auteur. But how does it measure up given that the shock of the new has inevitably passed?

The opening half hour of Alps is both its greatest asset and its biggest weakness. Dogtooth was certainly an obtuse, ambiguous film in its first act, but its nothing compared to the vagueness and uncertainty of Alps. Lanthimos is in no rush whatsoever to let the audience what is going on, instead presenting loosely connected sequences and characters while providing only the bare minimum of exposition and explanation. There's the same quietly subversive visual compositions and almost beyond deadpan humour, but catch this in the wrong mood and the film's challenging first third may prove maddening. If Dogtooth's quirks infuriated, Alps may irritate.

Luckily, Lanthimos eventually proves that he knows exactly what he's doing. When the jigsaw pieces come together and the film's overarching concepts and narrative become evident, Alps proves to be beautifully frustrating. This is a spoiler of sorts, I guess, but it's eventually revealed that the main character (Aggeliki Papoulia, one of the daughters from Dogtooth) - referred to only as her mountainous pseudynom Monte Rosa - is a member of a group (Alps) that provides a strange sort of counseling to grieving individuals: acting as a substitute for the deceased in exchange for a fee (the first four sessions are free!). The death of a young tennis player provokes Monte Rosa to begin to rebel against her colleagues, including strict leader Montblanc (Aris Servetalis).

In some ways, the narrative trajectory of Alps recalls the subplot in Dogtooth about 'outside help' Christina. Both characters attempt to reject the bizarre rules of the world they find themselves in: relatively normal people in extraordinary circumstances. Monte Rosa's misadventures here are strange ones, that become more absurd, perverse and violent as the film progresses. The distinction between her 'real life' and 'job' become increasingly murky for both the viewer and the character, and ultimately become almost inseparable as the film draws to its predictably uncertain conclusion (brilliantly, hilariously uncertain, I hasten to add).

Once you have adjusted to the film's wholly unusual tone and pacing, Alps proves itself to be worth the effort. It's very, very funny: scenes such as a manufactured argument and the brilliantly uncomfortable sex scene that follows are delightful in their eccentricity and dark comic timing. Although Monte Rosa enjoys a more traditional character arc than anyone in Dogtooth did, this is still a purposefully cold, emotionally removed film. I'm trying to get through this review without repeatedly using the word deadpan, but like most of the New Wave of Greek film its the most appropriate word to describe Alps' narrative and visual styles.

What's it all about, then? A study of grief and loss? An exercise in social satire and straight-up surrealism? Dare I even suggest an abstract commentary on Greek economic bankruptcy, debt and bailouts? It can be anything you want it to be really. What is certain is that it's another beguilingly offbeat work from a very distinctive director. It may lack the immediacy and sense of discovery many of us experienced with Dogtooth. But despite a sluggish yet considered opening act, Alps reveals itself as a fascinating, playful and intelligent successor to one of recent year's most unexpected greats. 

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