Adapted from Baku Yumemakura’s mid-‘90s manga series of the same name, Patrick Imbert’s “The Summit of the Gods” might reflect the awed and glassy tone of recent French animation (the similarly ethereal “I Lost My Body” comes to mind), but its most formative influence is fittingly Japanese: Studio Ghibli.
You might sense it in the structure of Imbet, Magali Pouzol, and Jean-Charles Ostorero’s screenplay, which unfolds through a series of nested memories à la Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday” — or “Citizen Kane.” More specific is how this meditative, breathless, and occasionally transcendent film rustles with the same melancholic beauty that swirls through every frame of Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus “The Wind Rises.” Where that melodrama weighed the creative spirit against its most awful cost, this adventure story reaches even higher in its bid to understand why some men (and only men, so far as Imbert’s picture is concerned) are compelled to climb the world’s tallest mountain and/or die trying.
“The Summit of the Gods” is a film that knows no one will ever come up with a better answer than “because it’s there,” but just as crucially it’s also a film that knows those words — often lumped together with the legend of Edmund Hillary after he and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to scale Mount Everest in 1953 — were actually spoken by George Leigh Mallory, who disappeared 300 meters from the peak in 1924. And so “The Summit of the Gods” logically starts with him — or at least the camera he left behind on Everest when he vanished.
That Vest Pocket Autographic contains the only evidence of whether or not Mallory actually made it to the top of the mountain, which explains why photojournalist Makoto Fukamachi lights up when the artifact is dangled in front of his face in Kathmandu after another failed season of following climbers up the Himalayas. Makoto is voiced by Damien Boisseau in the original French-language track and “Never Have I Ever” star Darren Barnet in the English dub; given the array of available options, it’s baffling that Netflix didn’t also record a Japanese-language version so that the film’s characters might be heard in their native tongue.
Makoto is steps away from grabbing hold of the camera when it’s nabbed by a legendary figure: Former climbing god Habu Joji, who disappeared off the map after a series of terrible accidents stunted his career. Makoto is happy with the mystery the situation presents, if only because wrapping the search for Habu around the search for Mallory’s camera leaves him with one hell of a double-layered pitch for his editor back in Tokyo. A few subjective flashbacks later — most of them centered on Habu as the kind of gruffly determined purist who would cut his own brother off the rope if his weight threatened them both — and Makoto finds himself photographing Habu’s solo ascent up Everest. The men don’t bond, per se, but they arrive at the mutual agreement that every mountaineer has to make their own meaning.
The same holds true for the people watching along from home, as Imbert’s film gradually strips back every layer of character and conflict until its summit push is a wordless spectacle that follows two distant climbers up towards the heavens — distant from us and from each other. It’s here, in these more high-altitude and less high-minded passages that “The Summit of the Gods” reaches the peak of its power, as the lush 2D animation indulges in the kind of ecstatically true vistas that live action would never allow, while Amine Bouhafa’s gorgeous and beguiling score makes every step feel like a spiritual proposition before exploding into an avalanche of synths. The combination results in an almost subliminal unreality that amounts to something between a documentary and a dream. This world is logical, and also not.
Makoto and Habu may be little more than vessels for the obsession they exist to embody or interrogate, but that simplicity makes it that much easier for them to sublimate into the snow; for the “who” of it all to melt into “why” so that the movie can busy itself with pushing beyond the need to answer that question. “For some,” Makoto eventually understands, “the mountains aren’t a goal, they’re just a path.” “The Summit of the Gods” makes sense of Mallory’s need to follow that path to an icy grave, if only because this poetically elemental film understands that there was no other way for him to know where it led.
“The Summit of the Gods” is now streaming on Netflix.
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