By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 2, 2011 at 9:45AM
Until a couple of years ago, few outside his native Greece were aware of theater director-turned-filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos. But when his third film, "Dogtooth," came from seemingly nowhere to win the top prize at Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009, it kicked off a process that's deservedly seen the helmer become one of the most closely-watched international filmmakers around. Other than a producing and acting role in the rather-less-good "Attenberg," he's been quietly working away on a follow-up, the pitch-black "Alps," which screened for the press here in Venice tonight. And the good news is, it's just as remarkable as his breakthrough.
We're going to say this only once. We recommend you go in to "Alps" as cold as possible. It's not quite like anything you've seen (its closest relative being, well, "Dogtooth"), and part of its pleasure is watching it play out. There's no giant twist or anything, but we're glad we saw it the way we did: knowing only a brief synopsis, and nothing else. Having said that, we do have a review to write. But proceed with caution after the jump, as it were.
That brief synopsis, from the press kit, for the uninitiated: "A nurse, a paramedic, a gymnast and her coach have formed a service for hire. They stand in for dead people by appointment, hired by the relatives, friends or colleagues of the deceased. The company is called Alps. The leader, the paramedic, calls himself Mont Blanc. Although Alps members operate under a discipline regime demanded by their leader, the nurse does not." There we go. There's your premise. We'll try to stay within it, but no promises.
It's not quite the ensemble piece that it might sound like, the focus landing principally on the nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia, the only cast member to recur from "Dogtooth"). As the group's newest member, and its most independent, the majority of scenes are spent with her, while the leader Mont Blanc by necessity remains an enigma. The gymnast ("Attenberg" star Ariane Labed, who's superb here) and coach (Johnny Vekris) have a fruitful, fascinating relationship, with major scenes bookending the film, but they're generally in support to Papoulia, whose part has similar DNA to her role of the older daughter in the earlier film, while also proving distinct.
Indeed, the film is in many ways a piece with its predecessor. They share a similar approach, a similar frank, uncomfortable sexuality, a similar matter-of-fact violence. There are certain thematic concerns in common too, although we'll leave you to figure those out for yourself. It's probably a more accessible film than its predecessor, accessible being a very relative term here. It plays up the jet-black comedy, while retaining the humanism -- as strange a world as Lanthimos creates, he genuinely cares for his characters, even as they do incomprehensible things.
"Alps" is, principally, a film about grief, about how you deal with a parent, or a spouse, or a child, or a friend, who's suddenly no longer around. It's also, to some extent, about acting and actors -- the nurse is almost always playing a role, becoming something of a blank slate when she's not. Not that the members of Alps are chameleons; the blank readings they give when inhabiting the deceased gives the scenes a deeply unnerving quality.
Some may find the structure repetitive, scenes of the group together, and of the nurse at home with her aging father, interspersed with vignettes of the Alps at their work. But no two of these scenes are the same, each one introducing some new element, and peeling back a little more of the truth, while Lanthimos expertly plays with expectation, sometimes leaving you guessing when they're "in character," and when they're acting of their own volition. Some of the clients use them to relive memories, some of them to rewrite history, but the filmmaker is careful never to condemn the Alps: everyone they approach are game, and may even be helped by the group. It's worth noting, however, that anyone who insists on definitive answers will be disappointed; this is a film to argue about with friends in the lobby until the theater staff throw you out.
Lanthimos continues to prove himself a supremely controlled, disciplined filmmaker: his use of focus alone could form the basis of a film school class, and it's always interesting to note what he doesn't show, frequently cutting off or obscuring faces and relying on body language. "Alps" has proven Lanthimos to be one of the most fascinating filmmakers anywhere right now, and, while there's no immediate news on when it'll hit on the U.S., or anywhere outside Greece, we're confident it'll be one of the most talked-about films of the next year: with so much to talk about, how could it not be? [A]