Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Aggeliki Papoulia, Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris, Ariane Labed, Stavros Psyllakis, Efthymis Filippou, Maria Kirozi Club, IFI/Light House, Dublin, 93 min
A HUSBAND takes his “wife” out to the storeroom at the back of his lighting fixture shop, where, in the middle of a particularly delicate sex act, she says “please don’t stop; it feels like paradise”. The words are flat and emotionless and, worse, she’s fluffed the line:” “It feels like heaven,” corrects the “husband”.
The woman (Aggeliki Papoulia) is a nurse (at least we think so) and part of an ill-defined quartet called Alps. Their business model is simple: the troop impersonate the recently dead so that bereaved family and friends might transition easily through the grieving process. Their practices – throwing balls at a racquet tied to a comatose tennis player, perfecting a ribbon routine for rhythmic gymnastics – are harder to decipher.
At first glance, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to Dogtooth seems to emerge out out the same pseudo-scientific mischief that gifted us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Skeletons.
On closer inspection, it’s a less domesticated beast. From the get-go, cinematographer Christos Voudouris’s obscured shots and the script’s weirdly mannered dialogue strike an absurd, discordant tone.
Like Dogtooth, Alps-brand surrealism is never L’Age d’Or riotous. It’s sneaky and discombobulating. Late clients are repeatedly reduced to trivial, ridiculous “likes” lists. They’re pendant lamps, Spaghetti Neopolitan and Jude Law. Determining the dying’s favourite actor is of paramount importance to the Alps crew as a car-crash victim, struggling for life in the back of an ambulance, soon discovers. “Brad Pitt?” asks the Alps-aligned paramedic. “Just signal.”
At least some of the chilly, gleefully obscurantist drama scans as political allegory. Once again, we’re presented with Greek citizens struggling with arbitrary demands and inherited dysfunctions. Once again, scary, controlling patriarchs rule the roost.
“Why not work with something more pop?” asks the much-misused gymnast. “I’ll take a juggling club and smash your head”, comes her coach’s retort. O Fortuna, it is.
Lanthimos’s grander narrative scheme contrasts Papoulia’s increasingly unreliable behaviour with Ariane Labed’s dedication to ribbon work. According to Alps’ stark dichotomy and Papoulia’s tremendous onscreen implosion, there’s no middle ground between total obedience and absolute chaos.
Ultimately, the film’s obtuse motivations and many detours can’t quite compete with the suffocating drama of its predecessor. But Alps pulls the rug out from under the viewer with at least as much vigour and devilment.