Alps: Greeks in Crisis

Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos, director of the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth, talks to us about his complex and challenging new film Alps, as well as about how the much-publicized Greek economic crisis is affecting the country’s filmmaking community.

Aris Servetalis in Alps

Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos’s last film, Dogtooth, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011. So you might be surprised that his latest, Alps (winner of a screenplay prize at last year’s Venice festival) has had a very modest release in North America. You might be less surprised upon actually seeing the film; it’s tough to watch both emotionally and intellectually. But if you, like me, are an art cinema masochist, it’ll give you the pain you crave.

Alps tells the story of a group whose members get hired by grieving people to impersonate their recently departed loved ones, acting out important scenarios from the lives of their “characters” to give the bereaved a sense of closure. In between jobs, the group works out its own internal dynamics, which resemble those of a cult or terrorist cell, with a tyrannical leader (Aris Servetalis) imposing his will with an iron fist. The film features wrenching performances from Aggeliki Papoulia and Ariane Labed as two female members of the group who struggle with the emotional strain of the work and their leader’s strict demands.

There’s been a trend of late in arthouse films to leave large parts of the plot to the viewer’s imagination. No doubt this is a counter-measure to Hollywood’s ever-increasing tendency to spell things out, insult viewers’ intelligence and tell us exactly how to feel. At any rate, Alps take this contrary approach to the extreme, forcing the viewer to fill in a lot of gaps and to concentrate hard to figure out what’s going on at all times.

At the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, I spoke to Lanthimos about this complex and challenging film, as well as about how the much-publicized Greek economic crisis is affecting the country’s filmmaking community.

Brain twister: Lanthimos

“It demands a lot from the viewer,” admits Lanthimos of his film’s narrative style. “Me personally, as a viewer, I get upset when people are explaining everything too much and putting everything in my face… So I think what we instinctively tried to do is the opposite thing: tell as much as we think is important, and then let people — not undermine them like they’re stupid, but invite them, let them be involved with what’s going on, figure out things for themselves, be engaged with the film instead of passive viewers.”

The difficulty of watching Alps is all the more surprising in light of Dogtooth’s Oscar nomination, which might have motivated other filmmakers to chase more international acclaim by going in the opposite direction. But, as Lanthimos explains, “We had already shot Alps when we went to the Oscars. And that was a good thing,” he adds with a laugh, “so we didn’t let it hang over our heads.”


Though the film is only political in the vaguest sense, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Greek economic crisis was affecting Lanthimos and his crew on a personal level. “The situation is very difficult at the moment,” he says with a shrug, but “it always was for making films.”

At the festival, I’d heard chatter about a “Greek new wave,” a phrase to which Lanthimos reacts with an ironic laugh. His take on the phenomenon: “It’s a generation of younger people that realized they cannot expect anything from anyone… so they decided to make films their own way: cheap, however they can, but not to be compromised creatively.

“So there’s these few films — two, three four, I don’t know — that have achieved to be shown internationally and to be acknowledged. But there’s no such thing as a Greek school of cinema or new wave. All these films are very different — which is a good thing, because it shows that it’s not, like, this new trend of Greek films that look alike and that’s why they’re accepted. But I don’t know about the future, because there’s no financing, no education; there’s nothing to build on.”

In spite of this bleak outlook, Lanthimos keeps a stoic attitude about the national crisis. Same goes for the reaction to Alps, which he admits has been a mixture of love and hate. The latter, he says, “doesn’t bother me at all if there’s a reason. I would be very disappointed if people were like, ‘yeah, it’s OK, it’s not bad, it’s not good.’ I really think the best reaction to a film, especially a film like this, is a strong reaction either way.” ■

Alps is currently screening at Cinéma du Parc

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