Aggeliki Papoulia in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Alps,” which opens July 13. | KINO LORBER
A few years ago, Greek writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos brought us “Dogtooth,” a remarkable film — and surprise Oscar-nominee — about role-playing and the breakdown of social order within a family that closes itself off from the world.
His follow-up, the beguiling “Alps,” expands on those themes. Infused with dark humor and employing an oblique narrative structure that reveals itself slowly, “Alps” is peculiar and unsettling –– and, like “Dogtooth,” completely riveting.
An early scene has a paramedic (Aris Servetalis) caring for a teenage tennis player named Mary (Maria Kirozi), who has been critically injured in a car accident. The paramedic is a member of a secret organization named Alps, which consists of four unnamed people — the paramedic, a coach (Johnny Vekris), a young gymnast (Ariane Labed), and a nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia, from “Dogtooth”) — hired by the bereft to pose as their late loved ones. The members of Alps recreate dialogue and activities of the deceased to help the grieving cope with their loss.
When Mary dies, the nurse, unbeknownst to the others, contracts her services to Mary’s parents to replace their late daughter for a few hours a week. She learns how Mary wore her hair, what she said, what perfume she wore, and that she bit her nails.
The substitution is meant to be comforting, but it is also sort of creepy. “Alps” investigates how individuals cope with personal loss. How to judge what is appropriate in responding to death is one of the more intricate questions this challenging film poses.
Lanthimos deftly explores issues regarding pain and grief, but curiously is more interested in studying the effects the bizarre substitution arrangement has on members of Alps than on their clients. This approach undercuts the typical emotional investment viewers like to develop in a film’s characters. Here, the clients are mostly underdeveloped and the members of Alps have little or no identity outside of the substitute characters they play. Lanthimos’ detached perspective is deliberate. He wants viewers to piece things together and offers no answers himself — easy or otherwise.
It is telling that when the members of Alps meet, they sometimes enact charades for each other. During their time off, they still can’t help but impersonate others.
The nurse works not just for Mary’s parents, but for several other clients as well. At least they all seem to be clients. It’s never really clear what her real identity is. When she brings a young man over to play Mary’s boyfriend, she has Mary’s parents catch them together in Mary’s room. Things get more surreal when the nurse takes the same guy to her own home and replays the scene with her father. If this man really is her father, that is. “Alps” delights in setting up unanswerable puzzles.
One thing that is clear about the nurse is her transgressive nature. She misses an Alps meeting, has a secret relationship with a client, blurs the lines of what is appropriate, and establishes her own rules that lead to her being punished. When she uncovers a shocking discovery, she makes a sacrifice that risks taking her too deeply into the role she has taken on. She seems to have trouble distinguishing make-believe from reality, but even here Lanthimos is cagey.
The director’s deadpan style makes it challenging for viewers to separate reality from role-playing. One episode, both comic and gruesome, has the nurse playing tennis with the bedridden Mary. The nurse throws a ball at a racquet she has placed in Mary’s hand as the young girl lies dying in her hospital bed. The nurse seems sincere, but how could she be?
Early in the film the characters’ behavior is often inscrutable, but there is a payoff. As the nurse’s actions catch up with her in the second half, “Alps” becomes more compelling. Papoulia gives a stellar performance in the film’s central role, with every one of the characters she plays credible and convincing.
Lanthimos may be teasing viewers, but those engaged by all the game-playing will enjoy the come-on.
ALPS | Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | Kino Lorber | In Greek, with English subtitles | Opens Jul. 13 | Cinema Village | 22 E. 12th St. | cinemavillage.com