It’s easy and even tempting to write off the protagonist of Giorgos Lanthimos’ Alps as just some disturbed freak. The unnamed nurse, played by Aggeliki Papoulia (also a star of Lanthimos’ 2010 tour-de-force Dogtooth), tries to find her satisfaction in working for an underground company (dubbed “Alps”) that impersonates the recently deceased to help loved ones mourn. It’s a bizarre premise that only becomes more so as it is seen played out on-screen. (Awkward sex scenes and uncomfortable interactions are only half of it.) Nonetheless, the strangeness of Papoulia’s behavior masks a fairly potent allegory for a tendency found in us all. It’s with this successful splicing of the strange and commonplace that the Greek auteur’s new film gains its power.
Papoulia’s unnamed protagonist suffers from an identity crisis that is sustained and drastic, and yet all too recognizable as an extreme version of something that can be considered common to the human experience. Though her reaction to them may be extreme, the distress and insecurities that spur her discontentment are universal. In Alps, Lanthimos reminds the viewer that we all, to one extent or the other, live lives as projections of others. Working with cinematographer Christos Voudouris, Lanthimos reinforces this idea visually. Using a shallow focus, he frames numerous scenes with off-centered characters looking into a distance of blur, seeing the individuals in front of them not as people but as potential identities—false identities.
But Lanthimos doesn’t stop with the mere observation that such behavior is a part of human nature. He also explores its implications, underlining the dangers and disappointments that accompany it. With Papoulia’s character as our general signifier, we see how her actions fail her because she puts her hope for meaning in what is fleeting, falling into a cycle of despair and frustration. Even more, in seeing this, it’s easy to see how we do the same.
As a result, Alps proves a superior example of defamiliarization, enhancing our perception of the familiar via the unfamiliar. And Lanthimos defamiliarizes through the story itself, as well as through the bizarre characters who inhabit it and his signature deadpan humor. From the isolated nurse portrayed by Papoulia with her tired eyes and straight face, to her mustached boss (Aris Servetalis) who calls himself “Mont Blanc” and evidently dreams of “substituting” as Bruce Lee, to a number of downright hilarious scenes, Lanthimos uses the strange and bizarre to loosen our hold on the concept of identity itself. By film’s end, the protagonist doesn’t seem like such a lone freak—and the viewer doesn’t necessarily feel like a bulwark of normalcy, either.
Director: Giorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Giorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou (screenplay)
Starring: Aggeliki Papoulia, Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris, Ariane Labed, Stavros Psyllakis
Release Date: July 13, 2012