Alps (2011)

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There are few filmmakers who I am more excited to see how their careers develop than Yorgos Lanthimos. Ever since I saw The Lobster, I have realized that he is a monumental talent. Even in his breakthrough film, Dogtooth, I saw traces of a truly remarkable filmmaker, and I was curious to see how he fits into the future of filmmaking, because if there was an explosive debut for a young Greek director like him, a film like The Lobster certainly did the trick. I wanted to seek out some of his other films, and it was in that search that I came across Alps (Άλπεις), a bizarre and often bleak dark comedy about grieving and loss, and after watching it, I feel even more assured in my belief that Lanthimos is an extraordinarily talented filmmaker.

Alps is about four individuals, whose names we never seem to learn. An ambulance paramedic (Aris Servetalis), a nurse (Angeliki Papoulia), a young gymnast (Ariane Labed) and her coach (Johnny Vekris), who all operate under the name of “Alps”, where they find individuals who have recently lost someone in their life, and they offer to imitate the deceased for a fee. This in turn helps them through the grieving process. However, as the film progresses, we see how these four individuals actually are affected by this very strange economic pursuit – are they adopting the lives of the deceased, or are the lives of the deceased adopting them?

Trust me, if this film sounds rather odd, I can assure you the execution is even more strange. I haven’t really seen such a strange film before, just like I had never seen a film quite like The Lobster or Dogtooth before. It is certainly something extraordinarily odd, and that is precisely what makes Alps just so bizarre. There is something about European cinema that just appeals to me, because they are able to take stories that mainstream American cinema would probably never touch, and if they did, would fashion it into something conventional, whereas European films often defy expectations and produce the most amazingly unconventional pieces of cinema. Alps is a film made to be a depressing drama, or an outrageous broad comedy, and considering if this film was conventional, it would be either of those. However, it was a nihilistic, hilariously dark comedy that I found remarkable for how audacious and strange it was.

The small ensemble of Alps is tremendous. The entire cast is dedicated to these characters, none of them even remotely likable in any traditional way. At the forefront of the cast is Angeliki Papoulia, playing the main character, a nurse who lives with her aging father. Insecure, paranoid and lonely, she depends on the families of the deceased that she is imitating to feel some sense of belonging. Papoulia is just incredible in this film, and I found her to go way beyond where I thought her character was supposed to go. Her final moments in this film are heartbreaking, puzzling and hilarious, and I think she gives one of the best performances of that year. Truly a mesmerizing, incredible performance from a clearly talented actress.

The rest of the cast is also incredible, and despite never reaching the emotional arc that Papoulia’s character did, they all contribute wonderfully to this film. Aris Servetalis is a very menacing villain, and his combination of nastiness and social awkwardness make him quite a compelling antagonist. His character is mysterious, but also utterly pathetic and irritating (that was the purpose of the character I assume). Ariane Labed is lovely as the conflicted young gymanist, and Johnny Vekris is great as her abusive but dedicated coach. Smaller performances from actors in brief roles also contribute spectacularly.

Alps is a nihilistic film, both in tone and filmmaking. Nihilism does not always work in films, and it is difficult to distinguish between nihilism and minimalism. Obviously, nihilism is far more tricky to get right, but I think in its portrayal of life and and death in very matter-of-fact manners is unique and very abstract. Lanthimos has a knack for showing humanity in a way that is both absurd and remarkably truthful. There is no way to deny that Alps is an utterly strange film, but it has a very unique perspective on the human condition and it portrays it in a way that is realistic and truthful.

As I mentioned before, Alps is a film that is tailor-made to be either an outrageous comedy, or a drearily sad drama. It is neither, and the tone of this film is unique. It isn’t a funny film by any means, but it is a bleak and realistic dark comedy with absurd themes and situations that the characters find themselves in. It is such a bizarre film. You can see this same kind of dark comedy in another film I watched recently, the excellent Romanian film The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu. Lanthimos has crafted this kind of bleak comedy into a distinctive form of art for his films, and while it may be slightly uncomfortable for some, it is truly unforgettable.

Like The Lobster, Alps features some truly remarkable filmmaking. It is the complete opposite of showy, elaborate filmmaking, but no less impressive. The way this film is photographed is incredible – the composition of each and every shot is just remarkable. The combination of editing and cinematography gives Alps a very distinctive look and helped contribute to the very bleak tone of the film. It is difficult to explain what exactly makes Alps such a visually original film, but there is just something about it that is so unconventionally beautiful.

I think Alps is a very underrated film. I stumbled upon it only after actively seeking out more films by Lanthimos. I don’t regret it at all, and I think it is a wonderful and remarkable film. It is original, audacious and unique, and I adored it. It may not be a film that is typically made, and that is wonderful. There is just something beautiful about the film, both in the way its made and the story. I think we need to recognize Yorgos Lanthimos as a monumental talent now, because I think he’s going to become incredibly acclaimed in the next few years, because he is filled with boundless talent. Alps is a fantastic film and anyone who wants something unlike anything you’ve ever seen should seek this out – you won’t be sorry.

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