Alps (2011)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Genre: Drama
Kino Lorber

Yorgos Lanthimos makes you work. His films depict worlds that appear to be just like ours, ones where things work just a bit differently. Since Lanthimos doesn’t have any interest in exposition, it’s always on us to figure out not only the culture and rules that govern these worlds, but how and why his characters are interacting with the world and each other the way they are. In this sense, Alps is heavy lifting.

The movie follows a small group of, um…let’s call them specialty grief counselors. Their business is part service, part human product. Instead of consoling the widows and parents of the deceased, they impersonate the dead. The leader, a paramedic (in a sense, a literal ambulance chaser) named the group because the Alps are irreplaceable. We don’t see much of him, but his presence looms. He’s abusive and heavy-handed, behind the film’s key points of graphic violence. Also in the group are a young gymnast and her trainer, as well as a nurse, who we follow most closely.

This isn’t a 24/7 gig. The Alps don’t train to fully replace the dead on permanent bases; instead they rehearse scenes that they then act out with the bereaved who have hired them.  We see the nurse play a few of these roles. One is a young tennis player—she squabbles with her parents and has a boy as a love interest. We also see her play a separate part, swimming in a cold sea while a man watches from the shore and later having sex with the man in the basement of his workplace. Is she replacing the man’s wife, or mistress? Probably the latter, but like lots of what we see in Lanthimos’ work, we’re not explicitly told. We also see the nurse interact with her widowed father, an interesting mirror being held up to the other interactions she has.

If this sounds weird, well, welcome to Yorgos Lanthimos. He’s a humorist at heart, even if his movies are filled with violence and trauma. Despite its odd and dark subject matter, Alps has some grimly funny moments throughout. One in particular depicts, unquestionably, the funniest form of tennis practice one could possibly cook up in their mind. And there’s even a short glimpse that the characters in the film perhaps understand the absurdity of what they’re doing. While re-enacting sex with one of her clients, the nurse bursts out in laughter at the silly dirty talk that she’s been asked to perform.

While maybe not his best or most engrossing film (honestly not a knock against it), Alps is still a shining example of why Lanthimos is a worthy storyteller. Its strangeness and dark humor isn’t there just to shock or move us, but it’s in service of Lanthimos’s incessant interest in using his stories as a form of human self examination. In Dogtooth, he asked us to look at how we raise our kids and shelter them from the horrors of the real world. In The Lobster, it was the pressure we put on ourselves in the name of love and relationships, what those things even are or mean, and the lengths we go to to find them. In Alps, it’s not only about how we deal with death and the grieving process, but what types of roles we play on a daily basis and how those change depending on who we’re around.

Alps ends opaquely. We see and hear something we’ve seen previously, which muddies the waters in one of the film’s key paternalistic relationships that we thought we’d might have understood. The ending forces us to ask ourselves whether or not we can be honest with ourselves about the difference between who we say we are and who we really are. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re all constantly acting in some way. We use social media performatively to carefully portray ourselves in a certain light. Around our friends, we’re a different person than we are around our families, an even more different person than we are at work and in a public setting surrounded by strangers. In Alps, we watch as a woman alternates between playing different roles and living her real life. Which version of her is the real her? Which version of us is the real us? It’s all of them, and also none of them.

Featured Image: Kino Lorber