REVIEW: Provocative Alps Shows Different Side of Greek Limbo
There’s a case to be made for the idea that Greece has more ghosts than the average country. This argument would involve space – having relatively little, especially for their dead, Greeks rent out cemetery plots for three years maximum before the body is exhumed to make room – but also the fact that Greece’s is one of the more fully recorded histories we have. And what ghosts exist that are not remembered?
Alps, the latest from Athens-born director Yorgos Lanthimos, tells a certain kind of ghost story. Lanthimos is most famously the director of 2009’s Dogtooth, the creepy, Oscar-nominated fable of clannish perversion that made the film world sit up and wonder, “What the fuck is up with Greece?” Alps carries over several of that film’s themes and intensifies its aesthetic mood of earthly limbo: Several of its scenes are set in a hospital, the rest are infused with a similarly antiseptic starkness. The tone is one of deadpan discombobulation, a world turned 45 degrees to the left but presented with a clear, dry perspective.
Whether you are willing or able to match that perspective will determine the better part of your response to Alps, which opens with a puzzling sequence and only gets weirder from there. A young woman (Ariane Labed) performs a rhythmic gymnastics routine to a swollen orchestral recording, protests to her coach (Johnny Vekris) that she wants to perform to pop music, and is promptly threatened with a grisly death. Next we meet a paramedic (Aris Servetalis) with an odd way of comforting accident victims: “You may be about to die,” he says to a critically injured teenage girl in the back of his ambulance. “Who’s your favorite actor?”
As is revealed at the director’s mischievous leisure, that question is more purposeful than it first appears. As the nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia) who receives the ailing teen girl – an accomplished tennis player – tells the girl’s parents, “Death is not the end.” In fact, she offers, after reminding them of how important it is to remember the deceased, it could be the beginning a beautiful relationship, one that involves her stopping by a few times a week and “substituting” for their daughter, equipped with a costume and a few salient preferences, including the fact that her favorite actor is Jude Law.
Papoulia (who played the elder sister in Dogtooth) knows she is not the intuitive choice for this particular gig. That would be Labed (none of the characters are named), the other female in their four-person troupe (including Vekris and Servetalis) of substitutes. They meet in the gym to debrief, try out celebrity impressions, and agree on their group name, Alps, chosen because no other mountain could stand in for an Alp but the Alps could stand in for any other mountain. Resemblance and age-appropriateness are less important than you’d think, as is acting facility: The Alps know their lines (usually) and hit their marks, but that’s about it. The customers don’t require total fidelity — just bring them a body.
The troubled, empathetic nurse emerges as the central character, and through her Lanthimos explores the lonely succor of standing in for what’s been lost. He keeps the focus on the substitutes, the customers are only seen in fragments, blurred, or from behind; only their need is felt. There is no talk of money, though we know the first three visits are free. Client requests are highly specific, and usually involve repeating the same lines over and over again; fights and confrontations are reenacted with mordantly wooden timing. The script (which Lanthimos co-wrote with Efthimis Filippou) feels at once tightly controlled and improvisational — each moment is deeply, almost mechanically constructed, and yet they play out in a sequence that is too lax for too long. The layering at work is so subtle as to seem incidental; Lanthimos resists easy signposts or even a clear demarcation of the lanes, never letting us settle on what to make of this misfit, distinctly patriarchal crew.
When a ghost gets ghosted, Alps cracks open and one character’s desperation drives the final third of the film. The climax errs on the side of the overwrought and overdetermined, like an earnest adolescent’s first attempt at a short story. And yet Papoulia’s extraordinary performance lingers, as does the film’s provocative existential fog. Slowly but with terrible surety, Alps reveals the fracture lines within its subjects, their families and the group itself, so that by the end it’s no longer clear who is substituting for whom. Only that the dead are surely better loved than the living.