Alps (aka Alpeis)

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

3 August

Jesse Owens wins the 100 metres, 1936

On this day in 1936, Jesse Owens won the 100 metres at a race meeting hosted by Adolf Hitler, a man who believed the black man was inferior to the white man.

It was one of four gold medals Owens won at the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, and it put the hat on a great year for Owens. He’d set three world records in less than an hour the previous year at the Big Ten track meeting, which has since been called “the greatest 45 minutes in sport”.

Hitler did not shake the hand of Owens to congratulate him, but then Hitler didn’t shake any of the victors’ hands after the first day, having decided, after a “shake all or shake none” request from the Olympic committee, that he’d shake none.

Whether Hitler stormed out after Owens’s 100 metres victory is moot, though Owens later asserted that Hitler did wave to him from his box – “He waved at me and I waved back”.

Owens later also pointed out that President Roosevelt – wary about losing southern votes – never invited him to the White House. “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

Alps (2011, dir: Giorgos Lanthimos)

Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to Dogtooth is an altogether trickier beast.

If Dogtooth told the story of a weird upbringing in a slightly less than straightforward way, Alps for a good long time is hard to get any handle on at all.

In scene one we meet a gymnast (Ariane Labed) practising for an event, who has the temerity to suggest to her coach how her training might proceed. He responds by threatening her with extreme violence.

In scene two, entirely unconnected, we meet a doctor comforting parents whose daughter is in a terminal condition. But instead of talking about the patient inquiring how mum and dad are doing, the doctor starts to babble on about her own life, how she likes to play tennis too, and so on. It’s all very perplexing.

Things carry on in this vein, with things not quite adding up and characters behaving in ways that don’t seem appropriate for the situation. At one point people stop speaking in Greek and start talking in stilted English; at another the members of the athletics team drop their own names and each takes the name of an Alpine summit. Well that’s the film’s title explained, at least.

But what the hell is going on? It’s usual at this point to say “all becomes clear” or something similar. Except in Alps clarity is always just out of reach. Though as these baffling scenes pile up it does seem to become possible that we’re watching a film about surrogates, in the mould of Holy Motors maybe, a possibility that becomes more likely once we get to the scene where the doctor offers to come around to the grieving parents’ house a couple of times a week and pretend to be their dead daughter.

It is all a very odd, rather remote story and Lanthimos matches the idea to the visuals, his framing always slightly off, with bits of door architrave or other objects often breaking up the frame, shallow depth of focus, shots held for deliberately too long.

I’ll admit I never quite understood the film. If it’s saying that we’re all kind of sleepwalking through life, living according to pre-written scripts, well that’s a bit crass, isn’t it?

In Dogtooth Lanthimos tried a similar narrative approach, and right near the end he dropped the “ahaa” scene where everything was explained. In Alps I don’t think it ever comes, or if it did I missed it, or I saw it and it failed to register, or I registered it but it didn’t do it for me.

Does this matter, is the question. I’m not sure it does, entirely. The film would be mysterious even if it played out entirely comprehensibly, without Lanthimos holding his cards so close to his chest. But its oddness does give rise to the sort of laughs that die as they’re being born. And its notion of surrogates is a fascinating one. Go for Dogtooth is you fancy an easier ride.

Why Watch?

  • Fourth feature by the talented Lanthimos
  • The beautifully cool cinematography by Christos Voudouris (Before Midnight)
  • Existential, and then some
  • Tricksy, but it works

Alps – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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