Greece (2011) Dir. Giorgos Lanthimos
A disparate quartet made up of a nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia), a paramedic (Aris Servetalis), a young gymnast (Ariane Labed) and her trainer (Johnny Vekris) form a group called Alps that offer a unique service: They will substitute a recently deceased person to help the bereaved family get over their death.
Oh boy…where to begin? After turning heads with his quirky yet brilliantly subversive Dogtooth in 2009 Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos returns with another quirky, brilliantly subversive yet infuriatingly oblique and often impenetrable Alps. The premise is interesting and has plenty of potential for emotional and psychological exploration but Lanthimos is not one to walk a straight line so instead we get a skein of quirky incidents following our unusual do-gooders on their increasingly bizarre appointments.
How much is tongue in cheek and how much is Lanthimos deliberately messing with us is open to interpretation and while many people seem to have “got” Dogtooth, the jury is very much divided on this follow up.
For starters no-one seems to question the service Alps offers. Granted they are grieving but even so the idea of a complete stranger offering to visit three or four times a week to literally replace the deceased, dressing like them, reciting memorised lines of dialogue and indulging in every aspect of their lives should raise a few eyebrows. Well, it should do. Instead this is gleefully accepted with both parties fully embracing their roles and ignoring the minor details of their proxy son/daughter/wife/etc. not even coming close to resembling the departed real thing.
The busiest of the group is the nurse who is known as Monte Rosa (everyone is named after a mountain), taking on the role of a diabetic wife and a teenage daughter. Early in the film a promising young tennis player (Maria Kirozi) is seriously injured in a car crash and Rosa is given the task of scouting her.
One of the blacker comedy scenes of the sees Rosa throwing a tennis ball stuck in the hand of the near comatose girl. The girl eventually passes on but Rosa becomes attached to the family so she tells Alps that the girl recovered and took the job on the sly. Monte Blanc, the group leader gets suspicious and follows Rosa one night.
Rosa is not alone in suffering – the young gymnast desperately wants to fit in with Alps while wanting to succeed in gymnastics. She constantly argues with her trainer over whether she can work out to a pop song instead of classical and she is threatened with physical violence. And Monte Blanc punishes her for messing up a line with her one client yet she has her eye on the tennis girl role but Lanthimos has a final surprise up his sleeve for the viewer where this young girl is concerned.
Inevitably the psychological damage such a job would incur is going to take its toll on the person playing these multiple roles and Rosa is the victim. While the breakdown isn’t depicted with completely transparency it is has enough shock value to make for a traumatic and tragic scene. But who is to blame: Rosa for taking the job to heart, Monte Blanc for his bullying ways, or the job itself? Unfortunately Lanthimos doesn’t like to give too much away so don’t expect anything in the way of answers or a suitable resolve.
It’s obviously unfair to compare Alps to Dogtooth but at least one could see the satirical angle Lanthimos was coming from with his previous film; to the viewer this film often comes across like a joke we’re not let in on. With no introduction, rationale or clear motivation for the group’s unique service or indeed the personal incentives, there is a sense that one is following a disjointed nightmare where coherence is a lot property.
Yet, the genius is that it is almost impossible not to be dragged into this unique world that Lanthimos has created although just a few more steps towards the parts where rhyme and reason reside would be nice sometimes. Making it all the more engrossing is the cast, especially Aggeliki Papoulia who essentially carries the burden of the entire film from showing both the good and bad sides of this curious concept.
I can’t say for sure if those who adored Dogtooth will also enjoy Alps but there are more likely to want to investigate this than other film fans. Opinion has been divided thus far so between those who loved it and those who expected more. There is something oddly captivating about this film but it does seem to want to make it hard work for the viewer to fully appreciate it. A curiosity for sure.