February 22, 2012

FILM COMMENT SELECTS 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov


Alps begins with a rhythmic gymnast (Ariane Lebed) facing off against her coach (Johnny Berkis). She wants Euro-trashy club music to soundtrack her ribbon-twirling; he insists on the deadly backing of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana” (its opening movement, "O Fortuna," is a staple of movie trailers). The bulky trainer threatens to break her arm the next time he questions her musical judgment. "You aren't ready for pop," he tonelessly declares.

Is writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos ready for pop? [Listen to our podcast.] Alps, his follow-up to the extreme dark comedy of 2009's Dogtooth, shares several quasi-joke touchstones with its predecessor: violence against women, incest and psychological terrorization, all committed with blank disaffection. Both films take place in a budgetary universe far from Hollywood, but that doesn't mean Alps' characters or creator disdain it. "Who's your favorite actor?" a paramedic asks a girl who has been badly injured. "Jude Law?" Celebrity names can be near-perfectly pronounced in any culture: the quartet of aspirational thespians of "Alps" have more modest ambitions. The paramedic is the self-dubbed Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis), who moonlights as the director of a motley troupe who offers their services to grieving families by sitting in for dead people two or three times a week, reciting line-for-line remembered conversations. Their uninflected, memorized-speech interactions with survivors sometimes rise in volume with each repetition, but there's no intensity.


Despite the pretense of creating a meaningful connection, these morbid stand-ins are equally denied global stardom and a more intimate relationship with grieving families. What they're asked to do has little to do with acting like the deceased: their renditions of old arguments allow survivors to savor every rebuttal and point scored along the way to a fixed outcome. As Lanthimos himself has pointed out, this is an inversion of Dogtooth's depiction of parents brainwashing their captive children with a nonsense vocabulary: the Alps forge temporary, equally arbitrarily governed external families that similarly fail to fulfill their emotional needs.

In their version of acting exercises, the Alps try out their impersonations of dead celebrities. The gymnast does an epileptic take on Prince, only to be told he's alive. "Prince is alive?" she echoes in disbelief. This may be a joke about the Alps' morbid fixation on coming to life only as bad incarnations of dead people, but it plays like the edgy, absurdist comedy of Adult Swim. Confining Dogtooth almost entirely to one house helped Lanthimos establish a fixed number of rules and creating clear cause-effect relationships. Alps has more sets and less focus, pursuing goofy one-offs for their own sake. That wouldn't be a problem if these didn't sit side-by-side with ferocious acts that feel like gratuitous, already-familiar elements of the Lanthimos playbook, shock tactics for their own sake rather than logical elements of the narrative. Dogtooth's patriarch is a sadist the film clearly kept its distance from. Here, the gap between the violence perpetrated by the director and his male characters grows uncomfortably close.


Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1978 Despair—the first of his three English-language films—stars Euro arthouse stalwart Dirk Bogarde as Hermann Hermann, a pompous Russian émigré managing a German chocolate factory in 1930. His relationship with airhead wife Lydia (Andréa Ferréol) is admittedly condescending. "She needs a patronizing type like I need a patronizable type," he lectures bohemian painter cousin Adalion (Volker Spengler), fully aware his control over Lydia is a transparent lie: he's walked in on her and Adalion in various states of undress one too many times.

Hermann's a creep from the first scene, where he rhapsodizes about a long-ago Russian evening when a sleigh ride left him and Lydia lost in the slow with the wolves howling—until the bells of the Kremlin signaled they'd soon be home. This reverence for brute power extends to his sexual fantasies, with Hermann imagining Lydia kissing him in full soldier's dress (echoing Bogarde's 1974 turn in The Night Porter as a Nazi who reignites his World War II romance with a concentration camp survivor, turning his disgraced uniform into an aphrodisiac).

The reason for the authority fetish is pat, as he's a coward who ducked military service. But half-Jewish Hermann's respect for people who can get the smothering control he lacks doesn't extend to the rising Nazis. Increasingly disorienting hallucinations in which he sees himself outside of his body—first sitting in a chair in the hallway watching himself have sex—make Hermann (and the audience) lose track of whether he's in his mind or the real world. There are no trustworthy indicators; outrageous behavior is becoming the norm around Hermann. His witnessing of the sudden eruption of anti-Semitic violence is filmed like a moment from The Third Man: sitting in an outdoor cafe, quietly reading the newspaper, he watches Nazis chuck rocks through the windows of Jewish businesses expressionlessly, with the camera tilted like the off-center world. Walking away, he looks back to check if this was just another vision, but no, there's still broken glass being cleaned from the sidewalk.


Despair is about a man whose worst persecution nightmares come to life. The results surely qualify as one of the most lysergic takes, however oblique, on the Holocaust. Hermann comes undone at least in part as a response to an environment in which people he imagines are sinisterly following him could quite reasonably be suspected of that. The film's total unpredictability makes viewers equally unsure what they're watching. At one point, Fassbinder stutter-cuts a gunshot, violently chopping seconds like a damaged DVD before suddenly slamming into a long shot revealing the entire preceding 10 minutes have been a dream sequence.

Bogarde's egocentric, Russian-inflected ravings take on a particularly surreal tone when coming filtered through three layers of interpretation. The source material is an early Vladimir Nabokov novel adapted by British, Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Shakespeare in Love). In Fassbinder's treatment, this foreigner's perspective, however valuable, allows for a savage parade of 1930 Germany embracing Nazism, directing frustration over inflation and industrial decline against “stab in the back” politicians and wistfully longing for a strong leader. The sins of the marginal characters are infinitely greater than anything poor Hermann's up to.

[Alps and Despair screen as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Film Comment Selects," ongoing through March 1st.]

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Posted by ahillis at February 22, 2012 12:41 PM