'Alps' does the (limited) Stateside rounds

Posted by · 7:30 am · July 17th, 2012

This is a total cop-out of an admission, but the best film I saw in my recent trip to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival was one I’d seen before. (Okay, including what I caught in the Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective, I should amend that to the best few films. But let us not split hairs.) The week hadn’t wanted for worthwhile discoveries, but things swam into perspective when, in the last few hours before I had to leave for the airport, I impulsively ducked into a screening of Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Alps.” Coming out of it a second time, everything else I’d seen that week looked a shade smaller, a little more finite, by comparison.

Regular readers might remember I fell hard for Lanthimos’s playful, existentially preoccupied follow-up to “Dogtooth” at Venice nearly a year ago: it was my favorite film of the festival, and wound up in my Top 5 of 2011. But it plays even better on a second go-round.Some of the thrill of disorientation is lost, as the then-shrouded premise proves more rational and more navigable than it initially appeared — but for a viewer no longer chasing comprehension, the subtleties, and unexpected sympathies, of Lanthimos’s characterization comes to the fore. Imperiously chilly it may be, but this is no bloodlessly arch exercise in psychological geometry, as less favorable reviews have suggested; as with “Dogtooth,” to which I’m surer than ever “Alps” is at least equal, its humanity is latent, but rich.

US readers ostensibly got the chance to see for themselves on Friday, but the release is so limited you’ll have to be very keen-eyed indeed to catch it. It’s presently on a single screen each in New York and Lake Worth, Florida until Thursday, after which it will next surface in Seattle on July 27 for another week-long run. Thereafter, it’s set to pop up briefly in such cities in San Francisco, Memphis and Iowa City — but a Los Angeles run, unfortunately, has yet to appear on the calendar. After the Oscar success of “Dogtooth,” one might have hoped for a higher profile for Lanthimos’s latest, but it’s an unapologetically tough sell. Keep your eyes peeled.

Meanwhile, since my initial review of the film is gathering dust back on the old site, I thought I’d repost it:

What do Jude Law, Morgan Freeman, Winona Ryder and Prince all have in common? (No, they aren”t in the ensemble of “Contagion,” but since everyone else is, you can forgive yourself that error.) The answer, as it happens, is that they”re all namechecked in “Alps,” Yorgos Lanthimos” dazzlingly dislocated follow-up to the improbably Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” – a return that should keep him on the fast-track to Euro-auteur royalty, even as it lashes out at the merest suggestion of acceptable behavior.

The invocation of these familiar names from film and pop culture – sporadically dropped into the conversation as one of the script”s many riotous, explanation-averse running gags – seems almost an ironic slapdown to any suggestion that the surprise slow-creep success of Lanthimos’s last film would move him any closer to the mainstream. Doubling down on its predecessor”s polarizing absurdist humor and chilly formal grace, “Alps” applies those virtues to a more diffuse, ensemble-driven structure that is in no hurry to reveal its rich thematic adhesives of doubling and substitution. It”d be rash to call it a better film than “Dogtooth,” but it is, in the relative scheme of these things, a bigger one, and exciting evidence of restless formal development on the part of its director. (Lanthimos” regular DP Thimios Bakatakis” camerawork is as calculated and sparing with space and depth as before, but more active and richer in palette.)

The film nails its storm-cloud colors to the mast in its opening scene, wherein a gifted teenaged gymnast (the touchingly breakable Ariane Labed, winner of 2010″s Venice Best Actress prize for the Lanthimos-produced “Attenberg”) is threatened with grievous bodily harm by her coach when she dares to suggest more contemporary music for her ribbon-twirling routine. “You”re not ready for pop,” he seethes. Neither, it seems, is Lanthimos, who amplifies this unnerving sense of everyday psychosis across a progressively surreal shuffle of story strands, the most dominant of which involves a lonely young nurse (“Dogtooth” standout Aggeliki Papoulia, once more on brave form) offering herself as a replacement to the bereaved parents of a young car-crash victim. (“But I have wonderful news!” she tells them, mere seconds after delivering the time of death.)

After this description, you”d probably struggle to believe me if I told you “Alps” is a slightly warmer film than its predecessor, but in its cockeyed, proudly foot-in-mouth way, it is: the comedy is sometimes broader and more patiently, zanily observational (as in a cryptic running motif where a couple feed each other lines of stiff English-language dialogue on everything from light fittings to orgasms), which is, admittedly, cold comfort alongside its most heart-stoppingly brutal interruptions.

As in Lanthimos” previous film, there”s a larger, more rule-bound narrative behind its depiction of isolated social transgression, but it”d be stealing his thunder to describe the knitwork. Suffice to say that where “Dogtooth” examined the devastating consequences of preventative social retardation, “Alps” elegantly provides a mirror hypothesis of people attempting to stall time and mortality after the fact of tragedy, like so much toothpaste scraped messily back into the tube; as studies in aggressive human denial, they make for a punishingly brilliant twin-set, with no pearls in sight.

Any New Yorkers, Floridians or others among you managed to see the film yet? Share your thoughts in the comments — I’m genuinely intrigued to hear feedback on this one.

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