Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps opens with an image no less forbidding than the peaks and crevasses evoked by its title: a cavernous indoor gymnasium, painted many tones of chilly blue and empty except for a slender teenage girl and a tiny, watchful figure in the background. As “O Fortuna” fills the air, the young woman (Ariane Labed) executes a rhythmic ribbon dance, then halts abruptly. “Why can’t we use a pop song,” she asks the older man (Johnny Vekris). “You’re not ready for pop,” he answers, with an unexpected severity (and threats of physical castigation) that hints at hidden meanings churning beneath this seemingly simple scenario between an athlete and her coach. Every relationship in this grave, unnerving, and often disconcertingly humorous film is imbued with a similar sense of mystifying rules and rituals, of characters struggling to decipher life’s signs and meanings when not using them to create metaphorical prisons for each other.
As in Dogtooth, the Greek writer-director’s previous, breakthrough portrait of identity in suffocating communities, Lanthimos drops the audience context-free into the obscurantist middle of his narrative and works toward illuminating clues slowly, teasingly. (As such, spoilers herein.) “Alps” turns out to be the codename of a quartet of strangers—the aforementioned athlete-trainer duo, a nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia), and the group’s leader, a paramedic (Aris Servetalis) who dubs himself “Mont Blanc”—who specialize in providing comfort for the bereaved. Their services take the form of opaque play-acting for grieving family members, with the “Alps” role-players engaging in torturously detailed recreations of moments from the lives of the recently deceased. At times, the impersonation means having tea and reading magazine articles for a blind old widow. At others, it means portraying a diabetic swimmer whose argument with her husband segues into a bit of unsimulated cunnilingus in the basement of his store. (Even the coital moans have to be just right. When Papoulia’s unnamed nurse listlessly recites the line, “Please don’t stop, it feels like paradise,” while playing the late wife, the man promptly raises his head from between her thighs to correct her: “Heaven.”)
As befits Lanthimos’s decidedly absurdist worldview, such dashes of mordant humor are never far from the film’s severe surfaces. In an early scene, the nurse tries to cheer up a comatose car-crash victim (Maria Kirozi) by tying a racket to her hand, propping her up on the hospital bed, and lobbing tennis balls at her—a deadpan bit of near-slapstick that also, as she becomes secretly involved with the girl’s family, marks the beginning of the character’s disobedience of her group’s rules and boundaries. Assigning roles and doling out punishment to the other members of “Alps,” Servetalis’s Mont Blanc alternately suggests a theatrical troupe’s particularly strict director, the pimp in a ring of emotional prostitution, and, most evocatively, a younger version of the father from Dogtooth. Like that earlier film, Alps depicts the deforming effects of repression and substitution, with the avoidance of the reality of a loved one’s death being akin to the avoidance of the world beyond the gates of an isolated house. Where the family unit there was a cloistered horror garden, however, here it becomes an elusive, falsely idealized sanctuary in a world of desolate interactions. It’s no accident that Papoulia plays rebellious protagonists in both films, trying to break out of a home in one and trying to break into a home in the other.
Both a companion piece to and in many ways a reversal of Dogtooth, Alps finds Lanthimos building on that film’s surreally terse style and notions of communication and identity without diluting its singularity or concentration. Working with cinematographer Christos Voudouris, he composes his images (with characters frequently decapitated by off-center framing or liquefied into out-of-focus background forms) to conjure up an atmosphere of dread that hangs over even the most deceptively tranquil scenes. By swathing every relationship in layers of hierarchical pretense and distortion, Lanthimos envisions social order itself as a continuous performance, an existential variation of Shakespeare’s dictum about the human race as players on the world’s stage. For him, the roles people assign each other can weigh as much as the stone masks of ancient Greek theater. In that sense, it’s telling that the nurse’s crack-up scene (where she desperately spouts the lines she had previously memorized while being forcibly dragged into the street) is immediately followed by the gymnast’s flawless big number: the former is frantic improvisation while the latter is perfectly rehearsed choreography, and the subtly devastating closing image asks which is more oppressive.