Giorgos Lanthimos, ’Alps’, and the Art of Not

(translation of a review published by Tidningen Kulturen 11 February 2012)

All is acting; a thousand bad sayings and half-baked sociological theories and now the film “Alps” by Giorgos Lanthimos. A group of characters, named after the mountain chain, offer services (for hire) in which they impersonate recently diseased family members and friends. Acting the part of the loved ones. Lanthimos became one of the new and hot names of European cinema with “Dogtooth” (2009). That was a desperately dark settling of scores with the institution of the family, but also a taxing attempt to score other, emotional, points through misanthropic invocations. Lanthimos spent much energy to challenge limits and conventions that already have been challenged, again and again. He is no Pasolini, unfortunately. Despite the fact that “Alps” continues in the same tone it lacks the raw, youthful and bestial intensity of “Dogtooth”. Uncomfortable sadism is placed in the background for a foreground that Lanthimos has attempted to develop with a larger complexity as he approaches a more realistic expression. The only exception from this move is the cinematography (Christos Voudouris) that with its tiresome modulations of the depth of focus has none of the nerve of the cinematography of “Dogtooth” (Thimios Bakatakis). 

The “comic” in “Alps” is of course that the actors do not act at all, that is to say; they act as though they were actors incapable of acting. This in combination with the hyper-realistic sets create an affected cinema brut populated by humans deprived of every trace of humanity. It appears as though Lanthimos were content with celebrating nihilism. At the same time it would be too easy to dismiss him for the same reason, however much it is tempting to do so. Lanthimos builds the film by breaking down the human. In an era when cinema shows tendencies of looking for a corner to crawl up in and die, he represents a new departure and a new spirit. Lanthimos does not believe in us, but he evidently believes in cinema. A position somewhat hard to come to terms with for a film-loving and human audience.

Even if Lanthimos’ pictorial language is miles wide off Lars von Trier’s’ it is possible to draw parallels between the Greek and von Trier’s’ first films (as the 1984 “The Element of Crime”) in which Trier created an anti-drama though the positioning of the actors as though they were pawns in his game. It is, however, hard to see Lanthimos develop towards the same psychological realism as von Trier would, as his films are so fixated at revealing acting with a horrific literalness. In his best moments there are no doubts that he is able to create scenes worthy of a Godard or Antonioni. In “Alps” he also invites some of his actors to show large dramatic registers, in particular Aggeliki Papoulia. The problem is that his destructiveness always seeps back and penetrates the plot as though it were a corrosive spirit that no one could resist. A bad taste of clumsy comedy in the middle of the misery does not make it easier to be a witness to the process.

Lanthimos deserves recognition for his more than honest question to the audience: why have you come? What were you expecting? Lanthimos is celebrated the world over. We clasp our arms around his films as to exorcize them, to neutralise them. He would probably be happier detested, and such a reaction would also aid an artistic trajectory that is now overburdened with impossible and paradoxical potential. Pity cinema when savours come in these garbs. All is acting, but there are important things at play.


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