Sunday, December 11, 2011

Imitation of Life

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Aggeliki Papoulia
Year: 2011

There is a scene towards the very end of Alps when a character climbs into bed, and on the wall behind her, we see the words "who's that girl" cut out from a magazine. It is an interesting shot, one that does not linger too long, but that says so much about the characters, and also, the concept of the film itself. When one yearns to adapt to a new identity, however prefabricated and artificial that identity may be, who are they, really, if neither themselves, nor the person in question? This question serves as both the centerpiece for the film, and as a provocative counterpoint to the director's previous film, Dogtooth, which focuses on one person's rebellion against a false life that is established by extreme parental supervision as well as paranoia and misinformation. While their ideas are almost polar opposites, the two films share many similarities in tone, style, and execution.

Like Dogtooth, Alps borrows its cinematography from Michael Haneke's book of style; the shots are cold, so clean while still unsettling and gritty, and the camera feels like a fly on the wall, while we, the audience, transform into a pack of voyeurs, watching the downfalls of these characters as they unfold. While clinical, the film can be surprisingly empathetic at times, something that its predecessor never was, even though it never asked to be. Lanthimos takes brief moments of strong emotion, whether they be heartbreak or fear, and places them in unexpected parts of the film. Through this, we are more moved than we would be had the tone of the film been maudlin or melodramatic. Conversely, like its predecessor, the violence in Alps feels even more disturbing and visceral because we truly did not expect it, and since it was so sudden, we cannot prepare ourselves for it, nor can we look away. Lanthimos also shares this with Haneke, who tries to include at least one scene in each of his films that breaks from the frigid tone of the narrative, scenes that shock, sadden, and even destroy us. Already devoid of style and flair, this allows the directors to create an even more realistic setting and narrative, and as such, the audience now has to keep on its toes and watch behind their back.

Outside of these strengths, one interesting thing that Lanthimos does with this film is show his restraint. After Dogtooth came out of nowhere and left a mark on many critics and film goers, myself included, Lanthimos, being the young, hot shot director with a controversial film and a surprising Oscar nomination under his belt, could have taken the Gaspard Noe approach to filmmaking and kicked his next film to eleven. His next film could have been even weirder, even more violent and sexual, and could have alienated even more critics. He could have tried to outdo his hit film and make something would have taken him from successful filmmaker to just another flash in the pan. While restraint can surely be labeled boring, or as a sign of weakness in a film, Alps is less shocking than its predecessor, but still manages to be disturbing and creative all the same. Instead of copying his first success, Lanthimos chose to take elements from it and execute them differently, but keeping a similar trend. Thus, he does not want to make the same film every time, but rather, create unique stories that stay creative, rather than derivative. And what Lanthimos keeps from Dogtooth are the things that worked best: the style, the abrupt scenes of violence, and my favorite, the abrupt ending that leaves the audience speechless. The best thing, and only thing, for that matter, that I will say about both endings, is that, out of context, the images and actions have no meaning or drama, but in the context of their respective films, they are enough to stop your heart.

Still, while I think that the restraint works, for others who enjoyed Dogtooth, it might feel a little lazy, or otherwise, boring. It is hard to say whether or not Alps is better or worse than Dogtooth, simply for the fact that they really aren't films one can compare. The emotions I have for Dogtooth are very strong, and since seeing it, it has been constantly in my head, but that does not mean that I cannot enjoy Alps, or even hold it up to the same level as Lanthimos' previous film. I saw a similar argument last year with Sylvain Chomet's film The Illusionist, a film which I really enjoyed, but which irked friends of mine who, like me, loved Chomet's first feature-length film, The Triplets of Belleville. What worked in The Illusionist was similar to Triplets, but was also different. The films were not supposed to be the same, and I realized this, but to others who were expecting a similar level of execution and perfection, the film did not deliver as much. Were Chomet a director with a wider filmography, I'm sure that it would be a different case, but it is when someone is just starting out that we see audiences judging them the most. If anything, the toned down surrealism in Alps works to its advantage in that it makes for a more accessible film, one that feels more traditionally cinematic, while maintaining the interesting elements of Dogtooth.

In the end, Alps is both a fascinating film on its own, and when compared to Dogtooth. The style and themes suggest great things from Lanthimos, and the understated performance from Papoulia, who was the eldest daughter in Dogtooth, captures all of these elements, and shows range in her acting. She looks much older, and much more beautiful, in this role, and one can hope that she collaborates with the director for a third time, and beyond. By the end of the film, we are not given a clear cut answer as to how we should feel, nor are the characters given easy exits. It is disturbing. It is worrisome. It is just how life goes, whether one is pretending to live it or not.

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