By: Daniel Reynolds
There is an early scene in Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, Alps, where a man in an ambulance is talking to a critically injured girl. He asks for her name, for information about her family and then he asks her who her favourite actor is. She is disoriented and doesn’t say anything so he starts listing some. Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp; you don’t like Johnny Depp, he asks. He explains later to a female coworker, the ostensible lead in the movie, that it turns out her favourite actor is Jude Law. What does this mean? To Lanthimos, and his characters, it means everything.
Alps is Lanthimos’ second film released in North America. His first was the profoundly unlikely Oscar nominated film Dogtooth, a film that features multiple acts of abrupt familial violence, radically uncomfortable sex scenes (again, some familial) and a girl bashing her own face with a barbell. To say I was ready for anything with Alps is not a hyperbolic understatement. Like Dogtooth, this film immediately demonstrates Lanthimos’ same direct, implacable style. He confronts all of his images head on, refusing to help piece together the reasons for his movie, but assuring us that we should be alert.
To that end, the film establishes our other main characters, along with the man in the ambulance and his female co-worker. There is also an older man who coaches a young girl as a gymnast. He dominates their scenes together with a looming threat of violence that only a director like Lanthimos can maintain. After an oblique explanation from the man in the ambulance, we learn they have formed into a little group. In an effort to help aid people with their grieving process, the group will act (for a price) as stand-ins, imitating those who have died for the benefit of their loved ones. As the man calmly explains, their group will be called Alps. Like the mountain range, he feels the skills of their club are significant and irreplaceable, yet also unique enough to replace anything. He calls himself Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the range.
For some of these characters, their identities appear to become meaningless or, rather, flexible. They desire to stand-in as the dead to help, perhaps, those remaining go through a difficult time. Yet, ironically, the film shows them acting out disquieting scenes with the people that hire them. The lead woman, Monte Rosa, in particular is seen to lose herself in roles as a daughter, ex-wife, even a mistress. Perhaps the people that would hire such a service are less concerned with making peace than they are with re-building a better memory from a sour one. Wouldn’t that change their own sense of self, their identity, as a result?
Of course, the people in the Alps group are willing participants in this desire to subvert themselves, remaking their own identities for others. The question at the beginning, who is your favourite actor, starts to take on a different tone. Who is your favourite identity? Who would you like to be? Who could you be? It becomes clear that some of the characters appear to be becoming increasingly unhinged, yet the tone remains desultory, calm. Perhaps their understanding of themselves in this reality is as ethereal as the notion of “Johnny Depp”.
I must ask again, what does this mean? I think I’ve been as matter-of-fact about the film as Lanthimos is in his construction of it. I’d rather not discuss anymore of the plot. I don’t have the answers to the opaque questions posed. The characters here are presented minimally, they generally act in a flat Bresson-ian style (even while involved in sex and violence). The camera is unflinching. It stares and stares and stares into the faces of these people, regards their actions, but offers no explanation or judgement. All we can do is try to understand what these people could possibly be thinking as the situations they find themselves in march, inexorably, towards their terrifying, yet logical, conclusions.