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Climb Down Ev'ry Mountain

Alps (2011)

Yorgos Lanthimos

A young girl practices gymnastics under the tutelage of a near-psychotic coach. Another studiously memorizes lists of light fittings. And they are part of a bizarre group whose leader assigns each member code names based on the Swiss Alps. From these mysterious beginnings, the audience is required to unpick exactly what this eccentric gang of four is up to and why. The resulting puzzle is similar in tone to director Yorgos Lanthimos’s unforgettable debut, “Dogtooth,” but this time we’re following several different characters in their respective stories and the dots are more difficult to join for a while.

Once we realize what’s going on, it’s an inventive allegorical conceit that’s impossible not to read without reference to Greece’s recent financial and societal problems, unfair though such a reading may be. Although the central idea is relatively original, it has been glimpsed in films before (without giving too much away: “Noriko’s Dinner Table”). But here it comes across as an apt metaphor for the deception at the heart of Greek society. Perhaps future generations may even see the Alps recruits as symbols for Greece at the beginning of the 21st century, pretending to be something it wasn’t for the benefit of its European Union overlords, learning its moves and lines like good pupils under the instruction of a harsh master.

Leaving aside these readings, the film at face value is not faultless. As a savage black comedy, it’s not quite as scabrous as it could be; and as a disturbing drama, it pales in comparison to “Dogtooth.” But it’s a great example of the driest, most deadpan comedy imaginable, reminiscent of the straight-faced Scandinavian humor evident in the films of Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson.

What’s most heartening about the film is that it could signal evidence of a Greek art-film miniwave, with the Mr. Lanthimos-produced “Attenberg” simultaneously doing the festival rounds to acclaim. And although “Alps” itself might not be a masterwork, you gets the feeling it could be a developmental milestone in the emergence of significant European directorial talent, much as the flawed but fascinating early work of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke paved the way for later classics.


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