With Dogtooth, his first internationally celebrated film, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos announced himself as one of the more fascinating directors working today. That film, TMT’s favorite of 2010, an astonishing investigation of human development couched in a father’s deranged need to hide his offspring from a modern world he both abhors and fears. Dogtooth’s success hinged on Lanthimos’s ability to create an entire concurrent reality for his characters, one that demanded deliberately changing even the merest linguistic signifiers (“pussy” became “a big light”). With his follow-up, Alps, Lanthimos has taken on an even grander examination of contemporary anxiety, this time proposing a reinterpretation of both death and its brutality on those left standing.
Four people — two men, two women — make up a small organization in the film. They meet in a gymnasium, where the younger of the women practices her ribbon floor routine with her coach, the older of the men. They agree to go by the names of mountains in the Alps. Their leader is Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis), a paramedic. He and a nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia), who both at work in the same hospital, offer a bold service to the recently bereaved: someone from the organization will stand in for the deceased, at least for as long as the mourning process takes. For three hours at a time, an actor will appear at the door of the mourners and learn the lines and idiosyncrasies of a dead wife, or child, or parent. The first four sessions are free.
Lanthimos’s ability to tease out the inner workings of the Alps organization is phenomenal. He paces out every intersection between actor and role, and for the entirety of the first bewildering act it is hypnotizing to watch the various mountains assume seemingly dissonant characters as they move between gigs as the dead. The actors in the organization understand they are taking on heavy roles and working under an unrelenting boss; Mont Blanc brutally punishes any of his employees that finds him or herself on the wrong side of his dictates. The tension between serving as a lingering human connection while remaining merely a product available by the hour proves nearly impossible for Mont Blanc’s charges.
The nurse becomes the focus of the film. She surreptitiously opts to freelance for the family of a tennis-loving girl who perishes several days after a severe car accident. In another role, she becomes the diabetic Canadian wife of a lamp salesman; this requires her to speak in English and learn to recite the types of fixtures you find in the average home. Often, the characters that employ the Alps choose to recreate scenes of violence and tension with their hired loved one: a series of domestic fights is recreated, as is an act of infidelity. Lanthimos includes these almost as an ulterior comment on the moments that linger in mourning — the moments in a relationship most worth recreating are those dominated by drama and regret.
Throughout the film, there’s an emphasis on various intersections of sex and death, made even more complicated by the ways in which the service provided by the Alps becomes a kind of prostitution. The economy of solace is inevitably governed by its ability to bring the grieving as close as they can to the experience of simply reanimating their dead beloved. That the members of the Alps can only ever become mere simulacra is not only a limit of their service: for the nurse, it is a failure that comes to define her entire being. When her freelance subterfuge is discovered and she is replaced, the effects on her psyche are catastrophic. The commerce of comfort cannot ignore the inevitability of human attachment. Once the object of love finds a stand-in, that new object cannot help but reflect a love nearly as sincere, at least if it’s honoring the project properly.
Lanthimos has pointed out that in Dogtooth, a character is striving to escape a manufactured world, whereas in Alps, a character hopes to leave her own life in or order to enter fictitious worlds. I don’t know if I agree. The nurse lives with her father, who appears to be growing more independent of her, but the worlds she enters into as an actor remain extraordinarily real for the figures involved. Even when members of the Alps need to be corrected by their employers, the scenes quickly assume an uncanny quality for both the bereaved and the surrogate. Lanthimos approaches the terrain of death with the same basic, standstill visual style that made Dogtooth so disarmingly matter-of-fact, and it has again paid off: Alps is overwhelming in its rawness. Lanthimos is a director who is unflinching in his mission to approach that which unsettles us most about contemporary life. Thankfully, he’s blessed with the imagination required to make us obliterate and reconsider our stagnant perspectives.