A talented gymnast, her older coach, a nurse and a paramedic form a secret group offering services to fill in the shoes of the recently deceased. In return for a sum of money, these individuals engage in impersonating and play-acting the characteristic traits and daily routines of the dead, in the company of their relatives, parents, spouses, friends or colleagues over multiple sessions. The purported goal is to alleviate the relatives' grieving process by filling in the void created by the loss of their loved ones.
Absurd? Well, don't knock this one 'til you try it. "Alps" (2011) has a bizarre premise at its center that somehow works in Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos' minimalist, deadpan universe. The talented filmmaker knows exactly what he wishes to convey here, and with a rare panache, narrates this story by establishing a steady control on the aesthetics and tone, thereby making one appreciate the inexplicable material presented, which otherwise could've been in a grave danger of misfiring or being misunderstood.
From the very first frame, Lanthimos subjects us to a lot of off-kilter dialog and impassive line deliveries involving some very strange characters who engage in stranger exchanges. We are introduced to this group who call themselves 'The Alps', headed by their self-appointed leader, the paramedic, who calls himself Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis). While bringing in an accident victim, rather than assuring or pacifying her, he tells her that she might die soon, and begins jotting down details about her family, likes and dislikes, possibly as groundwork for the next substitute assignment for his business!
The nurse (Angeliki Papoulia) works with the paramedic, and she is perhaps the most warped of the lot. While the agenda or the motivations of the group to carry out what they do is unclear, her motivations grow murkier, as it begins to appear that perhaps she has other things to gain from this underground project of theirs.
But just when you think she is the one with at least some shred of an emotional tissue in her when she appears to strike a bond with the dying accident victim, Lanthimos unmasks her as a shrewd businessperson who is quick to make an offer to the girl's parents to substitute her, even throwing in a freebie, in the same breath as she condoles them! Shrewd, she is though, as is later seen when she tries to bend the rules a bit, much to the ire of her leader.
The gymnast (Ariane Labed) and her coach (Johnny Vekris) are an odd pair. She appears to be quite dependent on him and very submissive too. When they argue about the style of music to use or even when a rather stern warning is issued, it is done in a manner so poker-faced, one begins to wonder what they are on. As the film progresses, it subtly raises doubts in our minds. How credible is the identity of these characters? The man is the girl's coach...or is he? Recurring dialog and repeating situations between people seem to hint at a wholly different perspective. It is tough to pinpoint reality against role-playing, as the line between the actual existences of this lot and their acted lives begins to obfuscate.
There are no easy answers to what is happening on screen, but gradually it all begins to make sense in a weird sort of way. One could think of Lanthimos' film as an absurdist black comedy that works as somewhat of a satire on feigned relationships and emphasizes on how unknowingly, there is an underlying pretense in almost every social connection. Don't we all put on an act in real life, no matter how small? Acting has become such an inherent part of our lives, that we tend to ignore it. Isn't it very common for an employee to put on a smiling face in front of his boss, despite not being given a raise? Aren't we all polite in the face of that untimely entry of an uninvited guest?
"Alps" simply amplifies this idea and makes it a way of life of our central characters. He taps into the very concept of replacing the loved ones and poses the question; how loved were they really if merely mouthing their commonly used words, wearing their clothes, and exhibiting their behavioural traits like a ritual, could be enough to substitute them?
The nurse comes home to her father at the end of the day and they follow a routine almost like clockwork, but their exchanges are very reserved. We learn later, how little she really knows her father, automatically planting a shred of doubt in our minds about even this father-daughter relationship. Is it for real? Or is it subconsciously turning into another acting assignment for her? And if it is real, then how appallingly detached this relationship is!
It is possible that perhaps, the people who actually buy these services are doing it out of sheer guilt or a desire to make amends for not being there for the ones who died. Cracks may have appeared in their bonds and the sudden deaths awaken them from their slumber. The Alps serve as a gateway to salvation, an alleviation of guilt rather than sorrow. How ironic, though, that the alleviation process itself borders on hilarity, owing to how mechanical it is. We see a man hire the nurse to fill in for his Canadian wife who presumably died from Diabetes. Their conversations in English are the strangest and funniest of the lot; right down to a deliberately fake orgasmic utterance during a feigned cunnilingus!
The peculiar camerawork is suggestive of the theme of an inherent alienation or emotional distance between individuals. The extensive use of shallow focus puts one character in the sharp forefront, while the other individual (or two) remain out of focus and blurred in the same frame, despite not being placed very far from this character. Sometimes, the head of a person or his/her entire body is cut out from the frame.
This could be the filmmaker's way of withholding the emotions on his characters' faces, thereby not revealing or creating any sort of emotional bias. Or perhaps, more befittingly, it could be symbolic of total detachment. In tune with this idea, one could also think of the methods of the Alps and acting as a means of reconnecting alienated individuals, a theme explored in an extraordinarily ambiguous fashion in Abbas Kiarostami's wonderful "Certified Copy" (2010).
Lanthimos goes one step further. He makes acting actually look like acting by stripping it of the histrionics as well as the naturalism. The film is primarily about role-playing, and there is a deliberate pretense about it, accentuated with the deadpan and visibly rehearsed kind of line deliveries of these characters, given their daily acting routine. And this part reflects that awe-inspiring idea of how acting takes over real life, essentially nullifying the actual existence of an individual, as was explored in a more explicit and unequivocal fashion in Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" (2012).
It is no surprise then, that the characters are all obsessed with actors and more notably, Hollywood. A recurring line of conversation always pertains to enquiring about someone's favourite actors or singers. Hollywood seems to be either mocked at or paid tribute to, with a lot of references to various celebrities, living or dead. A blind woman would rather listen to a Winona Ryder interview about her day to day life than to other current affairs. Even a tiny detail about a coffee mug is shared, that incidentally has the name "Los Angeles" inscribed on it!
"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players", goes an old, almost prophetic Shakespearean quote. Yorgos Lanthimos melds it with our reality as we know it, and demonstrates just how unreal it could be.