By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 15, 2011 at 1:00AM
Something new and valuable happened when Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' darkly surreal family drama "Dogtooth" landed an Oscar nomination last year. Steeped in discomfort, littered with violence and subversive twists, "Dogtooth" made viewers uneasy in a way that would theoretically limit its appeal. At the same time, however, Lanthimos' keen allegorical approach and suburban satire left a wide swath of viewers contemplating its ideas after the initial shock of the experience settled. With "Alps," his third feature, Lanthimos has created a similarly provocative work, but with fewer provocations. It's like "Dogtooth" without teeth.
Just as "Dogtooth" revolved around a horrifically restrictive family man who forces his children to abide by an absurd set of rules, "Alps" also takes place in a world of control. In this case, the premise involves an intimate club of disaffected individuals committed to a unique kind of performance. Taking orders from a menacing paramedic (Aris Servetalis), they run the clandestine Alps service, in which friends and relatives of recently deceased people hire them as "substitutes." A kind of method acting taken to morbid extremes, it's a mutually beneficial practice intended to provide catharsis for the clients while providing the Alps members with a distinct psychological challenge.
The rest of the team include a young gymnast (Ariane Labed), her demanding coach (Johnny Vekris) and a soft-spoken nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia, the oldest daughter in "Dogtooth"), the wild card of the bunch. Hired to perform as a teenage girl who died in a car crash, she gradually becomes too invested in the challenge and starts to lose her mind. Of course, the absurdity of the premise makes it clear than none of the principle characters are exactly stable, which makes "Alps" into one long and frequently compelling jump off the dead end.
Much of the movie is concerned the methodology of substitution, beginning with the paramedic's process of gathering details from a girl prior to her death. The deadpan humor involved in this interrogation process (he asks for pithy information about favorite foods and actors, rather than trying to grasp his subject's frame of mind) always coexists with a feeling of dread. The precise meaning and intent of the group never becomes clear. The screenplay, co-written by Lanthimos and his "Dogtooth" collaborator Efthimis Filippou, avoids heavy details about the logic of the Alps routine and instead lingers on strange two-person interactions containing multiple layers of performance.
The nurse emerges as the main focus of the story and its loosest cannon, both immersed in the process of becoming a teenager and always somewhat disaffected. Papoulia grave performance sustains the movie through some of its more frustrating moments when it could have used further elaboration. The paramedic explains to the group that "the Alps cannot be replaced by any other mountain," which establishes his superiority issues but never clarifies why everyone else chooses to take his word as gospel. The logical gaps make it hard to invest in the overall dramatic arc, which inevitably builds to the nurse's rebellion against the membership rules.
Still, "Alps" offers enough undeniably unsettling moments to make Lanthimos' distinctive vision clear. The dancer's uncomfortable practice sessions, where she's forced to prance around to opera despite her preference for pop, mirror the dinnertime performance in "Dogtooth." The nurse mechanical recitations of lines that her clients demand she speaks underscores the impossibility of the task at hand. Lanthimos' compositional strategies, which often display characters' ghostly presence in the background using soft focus while highlighting the nurse's conflicted face in close-up, maintain a suspenseful feel throughout. The plotting simply can't keep up.
That's not to say that "Alps" lacks an edge. Lanthimos' ability to make a twisted situation both credible and emotionally involving has no contemporary parallel. At best, his third feature confirms his skill even when it doesn't quite hold together. But Lanthimos' thematic consistency now runs the risk of rendering his frightening concepts more familiar than they should ever become.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Less radical than "Dogtooth," "Alps" could land a small release and decent reviews, but seems unlikely to do much business in North America given its oddball premise.