Alps, the tightly controlled burn from Dogtooth director Giorgos Lanthimos, begins with a simple image: a girl twirling a ribbon. Practicing her routine in a large gym, the rhythmic gymnast (Ariane Labed) moves powerfully, spinning and tumbling across the mats in choreography set to "O Fortuna." She finishes, but as she complains to her coach, a middle-aged track-suit-wearing type (Johnny Vekris), the routine just isn't working — she'd rather be doing a pop song. She's ready for pop, she insists.
The coach disagrees.
"Raise your voice at me again," he says calmly, "and I'll take a club and crack your head open. And then I'll break your arms and your legs." Bela Karolyi he's not.
It's a jarring moment barely lingered on, but the darkness in that threat inhabits the rest of the film, an impressively taut absurdist drama that's deliberate in its exploration of the value and limits of compassion.
Slipping unobtrusively into the lives of its characters, Alps introduces four nameless people — the gymnast, her coach, a paramedic and a nurse — and slowly reveals the unexpected connection among them: They run an off-the-books service offering grieving families and individuals a substitute for their deceased loved one.
They call themselves Alps, and, for a fee, they will work, at your direction, to approximate the clothing, hairstyle and even the mannerisms of someone you've lost, be it a grandchild, husband or girlfriend. Give them lines of dialogue, and they will re-enact with you the most treasured memories of your lost loved one.
Don't you wish the fight between the two of you had ended differently? You can experience it again, and rewrite it. Or maybe it's the small moments you miss: the nothing conversations, the goodbye you used to hear in the morning. The Alps offer that, too.
Who could possibly want this? Enough people that Alps has a healthy client register. Between the paramedic (Aris Servetalis), an intense man in his mid-30s and leader of the group who takes on the alias Mont Blanc, and the nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia), an isolated woman in her 30s at the center of the film, their jobs provide enough access to the dying and vulnerable that they know who's on their way out and when to move in.
"You must remember," the nurse, who calls herself Monte Rosa, counsels a grieving couple, "death is not the end. On the contrary, it can be a new and often better beginning." Then she offers to replace their daughter — with the first four visits free.
Repugnant though the opportunism may be, Monte Rosa seems to act out of true sympathy. Then, as each relationship in her life betrays itself as just another job, it becomes clear she's seeking connection by any means available. Risking the wrath of Mont Blanc, she starts taking on substitute work outside of the Alps; even if the relationship is fake, it's hers alone.
Monte Rosa isn't the only one who blurs the lines of the client-substitute relationship, or at least uses it for something other than grief therapy. The gymnastics coach doesn't mind that the widow whose husband he has replaced likes to make out with him, and, unhealthy though it may be, he's willing to re-enact for her the time she caught her husband in bed with another woman.
An urgent unease underlies these scenes; they evoke the person who has been replaced, yet disavow them completely. A substitute can repeat lines of dialogue and mimic a person's surface-level traits, but it can't embody the spontaneity and complexity of a character. Alps poses the chilling idea that if the clients are satisfied with these flat, rehearsed interactions — ones that must assuredly pale in comparison with the original moments — doesn't that call into question the value of the original relationships? Are real people so easily replaced?
Anchored to Monte Rosa's perspective, the film answers bleakly that you need someone to love before you can replace him. Her clients may forget temporarily the value and joy of authentic relationships, but as someone living an entirely fictional life, Monte Rosa can see clearly what she doesn't have. Her desperate attempts to hang on to even a semblance of a genuine connection reinforce that nothing is more painful than being on the outside looking in.