Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Alps (2011)


Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Cast: Aris Servetalis (as the Ambulance Medic); Johnny Vekris (as the Coach); Ariane Labed (as the Gymnast); Angeliki Papoulia (as the Nurse); Stavros Psyllakis (as the Nurse's father)

Synopsis: In modern day Greece, a small group of people - an emergency ambulance medic (Servetalis), a gymnast (Labed) and her couch (Vekris), and a nurse (Papoulia) - decide to create a service where they act like surrogates of the recently passed away for bereaving families and loved ones. The boundaries start to blur when the Nurse, becoming obsessed with a female tennis prodigy, decides to be her surrogate when she dies for her parents without informing the rest of the group.

At this point Yorgos Lanthimos is one of my favourite working directors. Still in his prime, which gives me hope for the future for a long career, even his English language debut The Lobster (2015), when other non-English directors have stumbled with Hollywood a-list casts and English dialogue, felt like he didn't have to change anything about his style at all and actually forced the outside influences to follow his viewpoint instead. Dogtooth (2009) was a significant milestone in modern Greek cinema outside the country at least from my perspective, awakening an interest in a new wave of films  from Greece with naturalistic minimalism in the look of the films but an interest in the surreal, but whilst his style matches other films like Chevalier (2015), Lanthimos especially now has a clear auteurist style of his own. His ability to transition to English and a Hollywood cast was incredibly easy for him because his work is all about an alien take of mundanity at its most farcical, taking ordinary life, especially conversations, and distilling them down until they are utterly strange, the actions and behaviour of his characters mundane in real life turned into something inherently bizarre.

Alps seamlessly fits between Dogtooth and The Lobster as the more quiet of an unofficial trilogy, dealing with a various philosophical topic of death like The Lobster dealt with the nature of romance and love, like the other two films using idiosyncratic little details in characters' behaviour and exaggerating them until they are absurd. How the gymnast's desire to become better is filter edthrough wanting to transition from classical to pop. How what one's work place mug for hot drinks or who their favourite actor dictates who that person is as an individual. In lieu to a film about people having to become the deceased, learning as much about them to pose as the love one as if death has not happened, the idea that a person can be charted as an individual by whether they like Jude Law or Brad Pitt becomes pertinent in Lanthimos' constant, prevailing obsession with how human beings act in a modern society, whether it's one created within a home with no knowledge of the outside world like in Dogtooth or this world in Alps where there's more freedom but characters needing rituals to function.

The rituals spike into more perplexing aspects which are done as part of said ritual, such as punishing a surrogate for failing at their work by forcing them to hang upside down repeating a phrase they use for a certain client. Not surprisingly the relationship between the surrogate and client breaks down but it's the customers who instigate this disintegration first. As the rituals become more complicated - a blind woman getting two surrogates, playing her late husband and a female friend of hers, to pretend to cheat on her - you also get sexual relationships which the leader the Medic prohibits. Eventually as well the Nurse 's actions, taking on clients without anyone else's knowledge, takes power away from the Medic which he reacts to severely when he finds out.

Lanthimos is also interesting in these films with how hierarchies of rules dictate people and how inevitably someone will transgress against them - one of the daughters in Dogtooth going against the rules to find out what's in the outside world, or Colin Farrell in The Lobster rejecting the rules of mandatory relationships to join the electronic music listening, anti-romantics in the woodland. Here in Alps, the Medic is a man who wants to help people but clearly, from the scene when he decides to create the surrogate group, has an ego and a desire to be a leader, lashing out in the sole scene of violence common in Lanthimos' films when his power is threatened. The rebellious Nurse is visibly trying to fill a void in herself by becoming the teenage tennis player, going as far as creating a mind bending meta moment when she introduces the late girl's boyfriend to her father.

Technical Detail:
Lanthimos follows the conventions of modern world cinema - slow paced scenes, static camera shots with minimal movement of the camera, the lack of scores and use of diagetic music, natural on-set locations - but he has managed to make it his own distinct style because his use of mundanity for surreal deadpan is perfectly matched by said cinematic style. Deadpan in the appropriate term for his films, but what's also important is that, for that to work, Lanthimos is usually dark humoured in his work, the minimal naturalistic tone working because the humour has a caustic existentialism to it. Capable of being more fantastical, as The Lobster proves, Lanthimos is yet someone who can quickly cut to more disturbing aspects of human beings even if the moments of violence can be sickly hilarious, the realistic look of his films emphasising this.

Abstract Spectrum: Surreal/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
As someone, due to a learning disability since birth, who has a distance to other people, which has led for all my struggles to it also to virtues like finding human behaviour in others absurd including that which is accepted as conventional social interaction, Lanthimos taps into something that immediately makes sense to me now and allows me to appreciate his work, of how people as social figures are more constructions and how absurd this is from a distance. He takes behaviour through the scripts of his films to an extreme of bland conversations and normal activities being abstracted. What would be rational and insignificant behaviour in another film turns into something more weird here.

Alps is a lot more subdued than Dogtooth or The Lobster, as barring an oddly sensual tone, not just the surrogate relationships -  such as the man who asks for a surrogate of a separated female lover to argue in second language English together and play a woman with diabetes, or the parents of the tennis prodigy suggesting the Nurse meets her "boyfriend" again - but even amongst the surrogates themselves, there's little of the extreme violence and more transgressive aspects of Dogtooth. Moments instead stand out are more casually strange, such as the game of impersonations of dead celebrities that reveals the Medic as a closet Bruce Lee fan, two people role-playing an argument in a lamp store etc., the subdued nature of Alps instead offering a different side of the same themes Lanthimos has tackled before and after.

Personal Opinion:
Somewhat lost in the shuffle between Lanthimos' two films before and after it, which I can attest to having only seen it now, but that doesn't detract from it being a great middle piece of a nice, loosely themed trilogy of movies. Knowing the director-writer is only just in his peak in popularity, with more films likely in the future, and even switching to the English language not affecting him, it adds a (strangely) good vibe to the likes of Alps more.


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