The director of Dogtooth returns with an even darker, bleaker and more challenging film.
When the four lead characters in Yorgos Lanthimos' new film meet to discuss the name of their group, their leader chooses the word 'Alps' for a couple of reasons, one of them being that "the name in no way reveals what it is that we do".
That line is indicative of the Greek director’s approach to storytelling. Alps is a film about people who offer their services as substitutes for the recently deceased, filling a gap in the lives of grieving families until their pain subsides. But Lanthimos is deliberately vague on the details of this arrangement, and of the motivations and agendas that drive his characters to take on these roles.
The director’s previous film, Dogtooth, was similarly reticent with contextual information, but that looks like a model of expositional clarity next to this one, which keeps us guessing about the true nature of what we see depicted on screen. The central relationships in Alps are all about control, with Lanthimos again using a small ensemble to explore group dynamics and extreme modes of behaviour. Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis) is the Alps’ self-appointed leader. He takes a sadistic delight in the power he possesses and is quick to react to any dissent or error from his female colleagues in a brutal manner.
However, as in Dogtooth, we gradually see cracks begin to appear, with nurse Mont Rouge (Aggeliki Papoulia) attempting to break free – defying the rules in her search to find a genuine connection. Her story becomes the film’s emotional through-line, although it is complicated by her own blurry sense of the boundaries between real and fake encounters.
Even if the lack of context Lanthimos provides can make Alps a disorienting and maddening experience at first, it inexorably grows into a deeply absorbing one. The use of muted-colours, off-kilter framing and deadpan, absurdist humour is just as effective here as it was in Dogtooth, creating a distinctive milieu in which this bizarre behaviour makes a weird kind of sense.
The monotone delivery that Lanthimos elicits from his cast is also brilliantly utilised, as the Alps team recite the scripts they have been given by the bereaved families. These sequences are often hilarious – notably a passionless reading of "Don’t stop. It feels like heaven." during a sex scene – but they can quickly veer into unsettling territory. One blind elderly lady asks for her two stand-ins to recreate an affair that her late husband had with her best friend. Reconsidering these relationships from the point-of-view of the families who hire the Alps adds a fresh layer of moral and emotional complexity to the picture.
It’s hard to imagine Alps having the same crossover appeal as Dogtooth as it feels less cohesive and inevitably less revelatory than that debut. But in many respects this is a more ambitious and challenging piece of work, and the impact of its quietly devastating finale certainly leaves a mark that lingers long after the film cuts to black. Multiple viewings are encouraged, and they may reveal just how impressive an achievement this is from one of the key new voices in contemporary cinema.
What has the director of Dogtooth got up his sleeve this time?
A tough, implacable and mordantly funny film, is what.
Requires multiple viewings to pick this one apart.