Giorgos Lanthimos’ breakthrough feature, Dogtooth (2009) was a surrealist look at a group of over-aged children trapped in somebody else’s fabricated world, increasingly desperate to break free. His follow-up, Alps (2012) is just as surreal, but a total reversal, following a quartet who insert themselves into the lives of others, seeking to fabricate a world that was once real. The movies are certainly inverses, but they are also companion pieces to some extent.
Lanthimos is on record for saying exposition is “boring,” and so you venture quite far into Alps before knowing what exactly the quartet does. As their leader says, they call their group Alps because “the name in no way reveals what it is we do”; likewise, the viewer will have to pay close attention to figure out what Alps is up to. Once you figure out what is going on, though, you might just find things even stranger than before (as it was in Dogtooth). Lanthimos may initially come off as incompetent—his camera’s focus is so shallow and unpredictable that it will turn heads of the most avid film-goers, he continues to cut heads out of the frame, and characters never appear to be caught in good light (or any color)—but his takes are long enough to draw attention to figures in the background and to help draw us into his hallucinogenic, dreamy world, and his framing places emphasis on body language and, by leaving off a person’s most identifiable body parts (particularly in two-shots), enforces his idea of humanism and separation. Indeed, Alps is largely about how grief and how we handle or help others handle grief says a lot about us as humans.
This exploration is largely through Aggeliki Papoulia (as it as in Dogtooth), who plays a nurse that assumes so many identities that we find ourselves questioning what we would otherwise assume is her normal life. It goes without saying that the nurse is unnamed. As long as the film remains centered on this character, its questions come out in full-force. It’s when the movie focuses on the Alps collectively that the film begins to falter. We are given lots of black comedy, but we learn very little about the Alps themselves, and thus very little about our desires as humans. Similarly, Lanthimos again wants to say something about sex and sexuality, likely a comment on how we attempt to falsify even the most natural and emotional tendencies as humans, but this message does not fully come across. The sex scenes in Alps are laughably fake. Perhaps that’s the point, that we cannot replicate love and desire no matter how much we try, but the scenes themselves are mostly distracting, and characters do not seem to react at all to the moral implications. If this is a message for the audience, it seems narcissistic for Lanthimos to disallow his characters to realize the same thing, and we lose out on any kind of further exploration as a result. For a film so non-judgmental about even the strangest of actions, a randomly preachy statement is both out of place and underrepresented.
That anomaly aside, it is precisely that refusal to judge that makes Alps so interesting. What the Alps do certainly teeters on the edge of repulsion, but everybody goes in willingly, so both the grievers and the people trying to take it away become interesting cases. We only get to follow Papoulia’s nurse, but it’s the minor interactions with the “clients” that bring much of the discussion to Alps. It would have been nice to see these thematic enhancements and reiterations further developed, presented as they are we don’t learn so much about ourselves as grievers; nonetheless, doing so might take away from the universality of what we do learn. Alps does not quite find a solution to this peculiar conundrum, but its continued grapple is more thought-provoking than the oddities of Dogtooth, even if it’s also not quite as satisfying. There’s a lot to take in here, and your level of enjoyment may balance on what you find yourself zooming in on and what you find yourself ignoring. More likely than not, though, you’ll walk away much more ponderous and possibly even a bit wiser. To a certain degree, isn’t that what the cinema, a fabricated existence of a world in itself, is for?