Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps, like his previous Academy-Award nominated critical favorite Dogtooth, is a movie that feels like a puzzle. Not an Inception or Lost-style puzzle where answers to mysteries are teased and delivered with thunderous revelation. Alps is a quiet, restrained work of artistry that’s cryptic in its approach to detail, ambiguous in its construction of characters, and deliberately distanced in its psychological, emotional, and visual landscape. Lanthimos and co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou have once again created a film whose idiosyncratic microcosm is manifested through short scenes that reveal brief and often puzzling bits of information until those bits gradually accumulate into a more full understanding of what the hell is going on. Lanthimos’s films require a significant amount of work from the viewer, and should be credited for it.
Alps opens with a striking image of a gymnast (Ariane Labed) performing rhythmic dance to a classical composition who is then verbally abused by her stone-faced coach (Johnny Vekris). We subsequently see a bloodied young woman in an ambulance being cared for by a paramedic (Aris Servetalis) who later informs a nurse (Aggeliki Pappoulia) that this woman is a tennis player whose favorite actor is Jude Law. I’ll save the details of what comes after for you to experience yourself (though many reviews have revealed much more than I will), but we come to find out that this unlikely quartet of characters (whose real names are never revealed) refer to themselves as “Alps” and are engaged in a strange and dangerous game involving grief, identity-switching, and the death of loved ones.
Like Dogtooth, Alps is about a thoroughly realized game of control with non-negotiable but indefinite rules that characters can suffer dire consequences for breaking. Alps also continues Lanthimos’s fascinating exploration of substitution as a theme: except instead of words, here people, relationships, and identities are being substituted. While Lanthimos’s work is no doubt unique and a reliable escape from the ordinary attended by his films’ ambigious tone and psychological absence, their unusual scenarios still remain within a realm of plausibility and relatability. We may never envision putting ourselves through what these characters experience, but one can no doubt relate to themes of insurmountable grief and lack of satisfaction with the identity one has been given.
So while Lanthimos’s work resembles that of Michael Haneke (especially in his discomfiting portrayals of sex and ever-shocking introductions of violence (see Code Unknown, 71 Fragments…, The Piano Teacher), he’s unlike the Austrian Cannes favorite in that he never talks down to his audience (but he does make us work) and he feels empathy for his characters who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. For example, in both Alps and Dogtooth, Pappoulia turns in remarkable performances as a character who attempts to find independence against a sometimes-violent patriarchal figure.
You might notice the many similarities I’ve pointed to between Alps and Dogtooth. The connections between these films seem to me unavoidable. But where Dogtooth was, for American audiences, a stark introduction to a talented, confrontational, and darkly humorous director, Alps feels like an attempt to play a different song using almost all the same notes. Where Dogtooth glued your eyes to its screen as its world continued to be both built and deconstructed after the revelation of what’s actually going on, the world, characters, and scenarios of Alps simply aren’t as compelling, dark, fascinating, or pitch-black funny (but never ‘escapist’ funny) as those in Lanthimos’s previous effort. However, the components built by expectation that work against Alps are partly relieved by Pappoulia’s incredibly complex performance, as she exhibits a range of emotions and behaviors while never letting the audience know exactly where her mind is at any given moment. In the end, Alps is not the ensemble piece it seems to be at first, but a portrait of a woman who lives entirely without identity. And how exactly does an actor portray that? Pappoulia somehow pulls it off.
Lanthimos’s films are best experienced knowing as little as possible going in so that viewers may have the opportunity to carefully piece together what the film is about with the bits of information deliberately parsed out by the filmmaker. In fact, you probably shouldn’t be reading this review if you have an interest in seeing the film. But unfortunately, in this case the compromised viewing experience enabled by knowing even a minimal amount of information going in also applies to any knowledge of the filmmaker’s previous work. Lanthimos is a talented and promising filmmaker, and Alps is a rich and fascinating film that will stick with you, but Lanthimos’s films are destined to offer diminishing returns if they all follow the same formula. Innovation simply isn’t as innovative the second time around.
The Upside: Alps is a strange and quiet puzzle that slowly reveals itself to be a riveting character study about the lengths that one can go in order to maintain a sense of identity.
The Downside: Tonally, structurally, and thematically, this already feels like well-worn territory for the director.
On the Side: The fifteen rules for the members of Alps were written after the film was completed.
Alps opens in limited release July 13. You can view its teaser trailer here.