‘Alps’ examines death from a poignant distance

By Sam Flancher

There’s something to be said about the hypnotic power of distance. Things too horrible up close can attain a certain power when seen from far away. A house on fire may be terrible, but from afar it fascinates with a kind of warped beauty. This mesmerizing quality pervades “Alps,” a film of quiet, subtle brilliance.

In an effort to relieve the grief of surviving families of the recently deceased, the members of a company called Alps take on the identities of dead relatives, replicating their appearance, mannerisms and everyday activities. The four members of Alps—a paramedic, a nurse, a gymnast and her coach—passively represent what once was by reenacting significant moments from their subjects lives.

While the group’s intention is pure, its actions take a psychological toll on its participants and their sense of personal identity.

It is within this twisted frame work that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos crafts his follow-up to 2009’s “Dogtooth.” Premiering to critical acclaim at the 2011 Venice International film festival, “Alps” has been afforded a brief Chicago run starting Sept. 7 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Absurd, weighty and darkly comedic, the film is a meditation on identity and performance in everyday life.

Aided by subtly powerful performances and a bleak but stunning color palette composed of muted grays, blues and browns, the film plumbs great depths while remaining engaging throughout.

The film’s commanding main character, a nameless nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia), works for both a hospital and Alps. She has a difficult time coping with her surreal occupation and becomes dangerously obsessed with her work as a surrogate before spiraling into mania. Her desperate attempts to fill in the empty spaces for others do little to fill

her own.

Tonally, “Alps” reveals Lanthimos to be a master of pacing and balance. There’s a deliberate, detached quality instilled in every frame, aided in part by the film’s deliberately static camera positioning. The characters are kept at a purposeful distance, and the absurdity of the film’s scenario creates an additional barrier.

Rarely do the scenes leave an emotional impact on the audience, as Lanthimos’ message to viewers is more intellectual. The audience is invited to marvel at the characters’ existential struggles from a distance, promoting contemplation and analysis over identification and feeling.

This kind of detachment is a necessity for Lanthimos. His examinations of grief and emptiness would be too overbearing if handled with less restraint. “Alps” utilizes distance as a visual metaphor. Characters cry, fight, struggle, make love, become violent and grieve throughout, but it all occurs from a removed

vantage point.

The film is an attempt to boil down life to its most basic elements and asserts that existence is merely a series of performed actions and voids to fill. This idea may feel overly cynical up close, but from a distance it holds a

transcendent beauty.