After making the provocative, nervy "Dogtooth," Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos no doubt faced a challenge in how to approach his next feature. Should he push his deadpan, unsettling style further? Or should he switch gears entirely to prove he's no one-trick pony? With "Alps," it appears Lanthimos decided to mostly go with the former, with mixed results.
"Alps" looks at a group of mismatched individuals (including a nurse played by Aggeliki Papoulia, who was also in "Dogtooth") who have formed an unusual organization (they even have code names) that essentially serves as stand-ins for the recently deceased, taking over the dead person's role in his or her family's life. Perhaps even more unnerving, this doesn't seem sick or bizarre to their grieving clients, who give the group members dialogue to perform and domestic scenes to act out.
In "Dogtooth," Lanthimos examined a family ruled by a domineering father who kept his children walled-up away from the outside world, creating a sheltered, airless existence for the kids, which ended up provoking all sorts of sexual and violent repercussions. By contrast, "Alps" is less overtly shocking, although that isn't necessarily in its favor. Lanthimos continues his style of presenting flat, sterile environments in which something always feels wrong even if nothing actually is. But the sum effect of his new film is far less cathartic or powerful than "Dogtooth." It's a good effort, but one that suggests a promising talent who may need to evolve beyond his current aesthetic in order to find a fresh approach.
One of the nagging limitations of "Alps" is that while the central conceit remains intriguing throughout, Lanthimos hasn't quite made its execution plausible. The movie never bothers to justify why anyone mourning the loss of a loved one would want to hire a complete stranger as a stand-in. Without any sort of emotional or intuitive logic to its premise, "Alps" ends up an intellectual exercise, a science experiment, a tantalizing what-if examination of human behavior. Granted, the family in "Dogtooth" were odd beyond words, too, but Lanthimos made that world so self-contained that the strangeness was understandable. For his new film, he's venturing out into "normal" society, which makes the characters' actions less believable.
And yet despite these reservations, I have to confess that I still found "Alps" compulsively watchable. I don't think its themes are nearly as profound as those in "Dogtooth," and the filmmaker's deadpan humor is starting to wear thin in spots -- once again, we get a few ironic pop culture jokes -- but Lanthimos is operating on his own sphere, which makes even his more muddled affairs worth the effort. If he was an indie band, this new movie would be the follow-up to his big breakthrough record, and so it makes sense to view "Alps" as a sort of transitional album. Where it leads, no one can say.