Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos's oddly under-sung follow-up to his icky breakout export, Dogtooth, feels like a significant step forward for the Greek filmmaker. Ditching Dogtooth's teasing calling-card quality, Alps feels, for lack of a better, less made-up word, not quite as premise-y. And this idea of the premise-y seems an essential, well, premise of surrealist cinema. In its stricter, demonstrably less generous applications (i.e., not just referring to richly imagined flights of fancy or wacky graphics), surrealism connotes a point of departure or difference from the established systems of reality. In Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, that departure is little more than a modest rejigging of crude physical laws (premise: a coterie of bourgeois caricatures find themselves, quite inexplicably, unable to pass the threshold of a well-upholstered music room). In Dogtooth, Lanthimos offered a self-contained divergence from normal familial constructs (premise: parents keep their three teenaged children imprisoned on a family compound, fudging their perception of the outside world). What distinguishes Alps's own surrealist scaffolding from these other toothsome premises is its scope, reorganizing nothing short of the full range of human interactions, and the identificatory schema of the cinema itself.
The film's ostensible setup sounds like a joke: A nurse, a paramedic, a gymnast, and her coach moonlight as stand-ins for the recently deceased, as a means of easing the grieving process of bereft loved ones. But as Lanthimos advances the plot beyond the initial framework (something he never really did with Dogtooth, content as that film was to feel out the boundaries and pitilessly aberrant depths of its own surrealist contours), Alpse's premise comes to productively modulate the proceedings, instead of merely defining them. The notion that people in certain closed-quarters relationships are merely hired-out understudies going through the motions to please the contracting party proves infectious, and spills out of the film's more discrete scenarios to undermine the perceived relationships between characters even when they're on the clock, draping the film's intense emotionalism under a pall of superficiality.
Lanthimos squares this trick stylistically with his fuzzy, shallow-focus compositions and stiff line readings, which stoke a certain tension that makes Alps feel at once unrestricted and deeply rehearsed. The sense is not merely of weirdness, or absurdity, but of something closer to the uncanny: strange encounters made unnervingly familiar, and vice versa. The dynamic between the nurse, designated "Monte Rosa" (Aggeliki Papoulia), and her father smacks of a certain falsity, the product of Lanthimos carefully tending to the seeds of deception and mistrust his planted at premise-level.
Alps destabilizes basic assumptions regarding the emotional validity of that fundamental dramatic hoodwink, the suspension of disbelief that permits buying into fiction's structuring notion that actors reading lines in a script are, if not meaningfully "real," at the very least driving at something like real emotions and ideas. It's an idea that resurfaced later this year in Leos Carax's Holy Motors, with its networking cavalcade of doppelgängers and deep-cover performance artists. But where there the idea seems like one of many in Carax's grab-bag of guiles and divergently thought-through ideas, it more fully informs Alps's dramatic and intellectual composition, right down to the atomic level.
Alps is an extraordinary work, disturbing and deeply moving in part precisely because of its defining phoniness. It's as much an investigation into the various flubs, compromises, and half-truths that define the rhythm of human interaction as a towering testament to drama's rudimentary yens to entertain, affect, and most fundamentally, beguile. A shame it'll likely be remembered as "the new film from the director of Dogtooth."
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Kino's DVD transfer reflects something of the film's kid-brother syndrome. Where Dogtooth came packaged on Blu-Ray with DTS-HD audio, a revealing interview with the filmmaker, and enough to make of interest to anyone interested in the "Greek New Wave" that crested and collapsed within what seems like 12 months, Alps's transfer feels pretty rote. The picture is decent, if a little dull, and the soundtrack comparably serviceable. Granted, this isn't the kind of disc you pop in to flex your home theater, but the treatment still feels a bit second-rate.
Nothing. Well, a theatrical and teaser trailer, which hardly counts considering that you can watch the whole movie.
Alps significantly improves (or at least expands) on the surrealist exercises of Yorgos Lanthimos's predecessor, the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth. Though you'd never know it by its rote dumping to home video.