Giorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth caused quite a splash last year, so many were eager to see what queasy weirdness his latest would offer. Alps is barely less weird, somewhat less queasy, and just as opaque. Even more than his last film, it also teeters on the verge of being merely affected.
A big crash of Carmina Burana opens proceedings in style, as a skinny girl goes through her rhythmic gymnastics routine, but it is some time before we learn that she is part of a group called Alps so-named, in a deadpan explanation, for the symbolic irreplaceability of the greatest of all mountain ranges, and for the fact it gives no clue as to what they do. The audience indeed has no clue, for rather longer than is tolerable, even if one knows in advance; but it become clear that they act as substitutes for the deceased, playing roles and reciting scripts for the bereaved partners and families. Of the four members of the group, Anna (Aggeliki Papoulia) seems to be the busiest, playing best friend to a blind old woman, lover of a lighting salesman (with amusingly stilted English dialogue) and covertly taking the place of a teenaged tennis player, whilst telling her colleagues the girl is getting better in the hospital where she works.
When she’s found out, she goes a bit crazy of course, and for all Lanthimos’s opacity, there’s too much obviousness here: a large plate glass window is there to be broken, even if after several attempts; and if the baton held by the Alps leader (“Mont Blanc”) who has discovered her deceit, can stay the same color, or turn red, you know which it will do, and just what will turn it red. The final line is a repeat – by the gymnast – of an earlier spiel, which in itself sounded rote, and along with the fact that for some time we cannot be sure if Anna’s father is her father, or if she is substituting for his comfort, there’s an oblique point about the roles we play for one another. But it’s merely hinting, and holds no more power than the repeatedly fuzzy focus that blurs much of the frame, keeping an ear or shoulder sharp at the edge, while the person being listened or spoken to remains obscured. Personality may indeed be ill-defined, and our ability to connect with or understand others unfocused, but like much of the rest of the film’s quirks, with the audience kept at arm’s length, this plays as a stylistic affectation rather than effective thesis. There’s plenty of humour, from Papoulia’s wonky dancing and the show-off old-folks at her father’s dance club, to Mont Blanc’s Bruce Lee substitution in a game the group plays to amuse itself, but for its more serious subtext, it is a film of suggestion rather than substance.