Alps (2011)

“Climb Every Mountain, Forge the Ionian Sea”


Alps (2011), Yorgos Lanthimos’ film prior to The Lobster is an even more aggressive Surrealistic assault on our impoverished human relationships, indicting American popular culture as the language of our isolation. The film begins with a long shot of a female gymnast practicing her rhythmic routine with a ribbon. The music she is training to, German Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1936), a choral piece adapted from medieval drinking songs, beloved by the Nazis, should tip us off to the fact that all is not well in Greece. The gymnast stops her routine, frustrated at the music. She complains that she cannot focus because the sound does not speak to her. She wants to use a pop song. “You’re not ready for pop,” declares the stern, Bela Karolyi-type coach. When the fascistic coach threatens to crack her skull open, the gymnast retreats, meekly declaring, “I’m sorry.”

A jump cut brings us to an ambulance driver rushing a young girl from a car accident to the hospital. Trying to keep her awake, he asks her who her favorite actor is. When she cannot respond, he suggests Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. After getting the injured girl settled into a hospital room, a nurse talks with the ambulance driver in the break room. The man continues the conversation he was having with the dying girl, saying her favorite actor was Jude Law.

The ambulance driver, the coach, and the gymnast are part of a bizarre club whose members take on the personae of dead people, purportedly to help their grieving friends and family members. Having nothing better to do—she takes care of her blind, elderly father—she joins the club. The ambulance driver, the leader of the group explains that they are called the Alps, “since [they] cannot be replaced by any other mountains…. But they could replace any mountain.” The leader is called Mont Blanc because, he explains, that is the highest mountain.

We first see the process of the impersonation of the dead when a man speaks to Mont Blanc about his college friend, a Navy ensign who died of a heart attack. The gymnastics coach asks the grieving man who his friend’s favorite actor was. Morgan Freeman is the response. The coach dons the dead man’s Navy hat. Mont Blanc is upset because the man did not bring his friend’s glasses. “It would be a completely different effect,” he absurdly explains.

The nurse becomes obsessed with the car accident victim from the beginning of the film, a tennis prodigy. The nurse brings a tennis racket to the invalid’s room, and tragically yet comically forces the racket into the girl’s hand and begins throwing tennis balls at her racket. Shortly afterward, the girl dies. The nurse begins impersonating the girl for the benefit of her parents, explaining to them, “Your daughter lost the most important match of her life… The end can be a new and better beginning.”

Things deteriorate quickly. The gymnast takes off her clothes to stretch for her coach. He forces her to say, “You’re the best coach in the world.” The sexual dysfunction spreads across the characters. While taking care of her father, the nurse asks who her mother’s favorite actor was. Robert Redford is his answer. “Mine, too,” she mimics. She begins caressing her father’s leg. When he slaps her face, she returns to her pretend world, as the dead tennis player. The nurse becomes fully unhinged, sneaking into the tennis player’s parents’ house. When they finally lock her out, she smashes lawn furniture through the window, setting off the alarm. The father must close his security gate in the nurse’s face to protect his grieving family for this false doppleganger.

The film ends with an exquisite irony, the gymnast performing her rhythmic ribbon routine to a pop song. The coach watches, smiling. She hugs him, frighteningly telling him, “You’re the best coach in the world.” The film cuts to black, leaving this horrifying world unchanged, with little hope for the characters. Lanthimos’ Absurdism, that grieving people would allow strangers to impersonate their dead loved ones, strikes at the jugular of a mediated culture in which performativity is accepted as just as effective as intimate human contact. The characters’ obsessions with popular music and Hollywood films serve as markers of that world gone horribly wrong.

Earlier in the film, the Alps play a game. The gymnast performs as someone she claims is a dead pop singer. When the men cannot guess who she is, in frustration, she declares that she is Prince. Mont Blanc insists: “You cannot substitute for Prince. Prince isn’t dead.” Later, he tells the nurse the story of what the gymnast did. The nurse also insists that Prince is dead. When the film was made in 2011, the men were correct.

However, because of the time machine that is the cinema, the scene now takes on a completely different meaning, given that Prince is indeed, tragically dead, making the women destroyed by the enforced performativity of patriarchy correct at last. Sigmund Freud pathologized melancholia in 1917, arguing that sick people refuse to properly mourn their lost loved ones, instead housing them within their psyches. The Alps are melancholics, exposing celebrity culture as a primary symptom. Lanthimos’ Absurdist methods work even better than he intended to critique a globally mediated world in which celebrity replaces real human contact.

–Walter Metz