Saturday, December 29, 2012

Last Chance, Fancy Pants

Django Unchained is not a very interesting movie. This is not a criticism. Wait a minute, yes it is. What it isn't, though, is a condemnation. I walked into Quentin Tarantino's new film with no small amount of trepidation, having heard from parties with whom I share a strong affinity for Tarantino's work that Django Unchained was the unambiguous nadir of his career. My trepidation was cut by the fact that, as someone who believes that Tarantino has gotten better with each new film since Reservoir Dogs, his first, in 1992 (this gets dicey, not only because I'm not a big fan of 2007's Death Proof, which alone throws off the graph, but also because I still haven't decided if Kill Bill Vol. 1 is better than Jackie Brown on its own terms or only when taken as a whole with Kill Bill Vol. 2; in any case, the second Kill Bill is better than the first, and I'll be publishing my complete findings in some journal of some sort in the future), that I found it difficult to understand how he could have suddenly shit the bed so thoroughly. Well, callooh callay, in my view he's done no such thing. And yet...

So what the film is, is it's a revenge story ("Again!?" some will balk; "Feh!" I will say back to them) about a black slave in 1858 America named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is violently freed from his chains one evening by a German one-time dentist, now bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz loathes slavery, but enters into a bargain with Django wherein, for legal reasons, Django will remain his slave on paper while the two of them hunt down a trio of slavers named the Brittle Brothers -- Django knows what these men look like, having dealt with them, or having been dealt with by them, before, and Schultz doesn't -- for which service Schultz will pay Django and then set him free. At first a seemingly reckless lunatic, Schultz proves himself to be exceptionally smart and sly, not to mention free with his money, so Django agrees. The first forty-or-so minutes of Django Unchained is taken up with this hunt, and then with Django and Schultz's bonding, which is both personal and professional after Django becomes Schultz's full-time bounty hunting partner. Along the way, Django reveals that his goal is to find and free from slavery his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Moved by this, and by stories of both Django and Broomhilda's torture at the hands of a variety of slave traders and plantation owners (including Bruce Dern, in a cameo), Schultz offers to help in this quest, which eventually leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the vile, sadistic, pretentious (in the true meaning of the word), crafty, charismatic, monstrous, and all sorts of other things you'd want in a good villain, Southern dandy who owns Broomhilda. In addition to that, Candie's also deeply involved in the sport of "Mandingo fighting," the definition of which you can piece together if you've ever seen Richard Fleischer's controversial and much maligned 1975 film Mandingo (unfairly maligned on moral grounds, I'd say, without thinking it's actually all that good), and which you might figure out anyway, but which in any case is the practice of forcing two slaves to fight each other to the death, and betting on the outcome. It's dog fighting, but with people, in other words. This is the door through which Schultz and Django will enter Candie's world, taking on the guise of two men interested in buying the finest Mandingo fighters Candie has for an outrageous sum, with their true eye towards scooping up Broomhilda, their true quarry, as a kind of afterthought, or so they hope it will seem to Candie. This plan puts Django in the position of playing the part of a black slaver, a free black man who sells and abuses his own people. This, Django tells Schultz, is the lowest form of scum on earth, and once the wheels of this plan are well into motion, it will set him directly on a path towards a showdown with Candie's house slave, the painfully obsequious, but also terrifying and smarter than his boss, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
The question now is, how is it? Well, to begin with, I think the film contains, among a lot of other good ones, three terrific performances in those given by Foxx, Jackson, and DiCaprio. Foxx plays Django with a great deal of stillness, which is by now a clichè when describing this kind of performance, but Foxx goes beyond stillness, if that makes any sense. At least as much of the film is spent by Foxx playing the role of a black slaver as it is on a man on a cold-eyed quest for revenge and salvation, and it's in the former spot that Foxx really shines. He plays what he believes to be the scum of the earth exactly as Schultz instructed him, full out, and in doing so becomes a genuinely frightening character. He goes so far that Schultz becomes uneasy, as did I -- how far is Django's desire to save his wife going to push him? At one point, when Candie consults with him about how to handle a runaway slave, pretty goddamn far, although in practical terms Django's stance on the issue might be the only possible one. It certainly does produce a ripple effect, however. Jackson, meanwhile, as I said is terrifying, but he's only terrifying when Candie isn't looking or isn't around. Stephen works entirely for Candie, lives for him and licks his boots, not literally but only just barely. In this role, Stephen, who knows he's smarter than Candie, has to always be watchful, and always cruel, and always willing to sell his own people down the river, or personally torture them into either submission or the grave. In his three major roles with Tarantino, in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and now Django Unchained, Jackson is always physically transformed in really striking, unforgettable ways (his look in Jackie Brown was described by Tarantino as looking like the Devil in a Mexican horror film), and here he's quite effectively done up to resemble a cartoon, or perhaps an old woodcut, version of an elderly house slave, with his ring of white hair around his bald head, topped with another lonely cotton ball of hair just above his forehead. Always hunched and hobbling with a cane, Jackson plays Stephen as a loud, funny, pathetic creature who plays up the pathetic side to hide the cruelty from those for whom he'd like it to be a surprise.
Finally, there's DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, and, well, I think DiCaprio is absolutely tremendous here, in a role unlike anything else he's ever played. As someone who has always genuinely liked DiCaprio as an actor, I'm not surprised he was able to pull this off, but it was very exciting to see him actually do it. Though I don't necessarily share them, I understand the reservations some people have voiced over the years that DiCaprio was sticking himself in a dour rut, playing a series of tortured, near-humorless human disasters for Martin Scorsese and others. He's pretty much always good, so why complain, is my view of it, but in Django Unchained he's given all sorts of things to play that he's never done, not least of which is unfettered villainy, and he tears into it with abandon. Candie's urbanity and sophistication is largely a put on (Candie is a Francophile and he prefers to be called Monsieur Candie, Schultz is informed by Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie's attorney, but when Schultz tells Moguy that he would be delighted to converse with Candie in French, Moguy asks him not to do that because Candie cannot speak French, and therefore Schultz would only embarrass him), and DiCaprio plays this, as well. There's some nice humor to be mined from small moments that show Candie quickly extracting himself from conversational bear traps in which he is intellectually or culturally out of his element, but Tarantino and DiCaprio never pile it on or make too much of it. And when the time comes for Candie to blow his lid, DiCaprio can roar and froth and frighten with any of the best villains from recent history. In the spirit of honesty, I have to say that DiCaprio's involvement was for me one of the most intriguing aspects of Django Unchained, and his bold, funny, ferocious, and in some ways unexpected performance didn't let me down even a little bit.

As for the rest of the film, it is, again, not very interesting. But does it need to be? I don't know, but it's not. Tarantino was correct in dubbing his previous film, Inglourious Basterds, his masterpiece, and it would be an unpleasant claim of entitlement to be upset that Django Unchained is not better than that. Still, Inglourious Basterds was, in addition to all the other things it was, such as relentlessly entertaining, very, very interesting, even fascinating. I'm talking in terms of pure filmmaking here. That film (which I wrote about extensively here, with my pal Dennis Cozzalio) was endlessly inventive and strange, with a structure that was terrifically confident and precise, at the same time as it was being wild and off-kilter. In Django Unchained, Tarantino seems to shy away from that kind of adventurousness in favor of a much more accessible form of anarchy. And what's wrong with a little accessible anarchy, you ask? Nothing too much, I suppose, except that stretched to well over two hours and coming from the man who gave us not only Inglourious Basterds but Kill Bill (the both of them, together), it can rapidly become a little disappointing, and, finally, sort of limp. You can see Tarantino straining to bring something new into this film, but having little idea how specific scenes should or will work within the whole. For instance, in the first half of the film, he drops in what has to count as a comedy sketch involving a band of proto-Klansman led by (a very good) Don Johnson that starts off funny, when I thought it was going to be a throwaway joke, and becomes absurdly out of place as it keeps going and never stops. I think it has never stopped. Tarantino cuts away from it, so I think it might still be happening, with the two jokes introduced repeating themselves long into the morning hours.
Then there's the anarchy, or what passes for it here. Last night I was listening to a podcast review of the film, and one of the hosts, who was quite taken with it, called it Tarantino's "least splattery" movie to date. If by "least splattery" he meant "second most splattery," then I have little choice but to agree with him. But waves and bursts and fountains of blood are Tarantino's anarchy here. I'm not at all opposed to graphic violence in movies, as I believe I've made clear many times before, but Tarantino seems to be at a point with Django Unchained where he believes everything goes at any time. By which I mean, he believes everything will always work.  And for much of the film, I might not have found fault in this particular case, right up until the part where I do. The deal is, there's a sequence, Django Unchained's equivalent to Inglourious Basterds ingenious tavern scene, that begins as a dinner with all the main characters at Candie's plantation. From the moment two characters remove themselves from the dining room to discuss what one of them has recently discovered, to the point where another character chooses to make a sacrifice (for those who've seen the film, this could mean one of two moments, but I mean the latter of the two), I was thinking, in regards to some of the unnervingly negative things I'd heard about the film, "Well, I'm not really seeing the problem here." The whole sequence is pretty exquisite, to my mind, and features the best acting not only of Jackson and DiCaprio, but of Christoph Waltz, who otherwise is rather unfortunately giving the same performance he gave in Inglourious Basterds, only as a good guy this time. But anyway, it's riveting stuff. Then, however, the one character makes a decision, and the film resets to basically do it all again, violently, again, with more red on white spray. And so the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the film is something of a botch, not entirely ruinous, but needless and kind of dull -- needless and dull, that is to say, before in the final moments it becomes almost insulting. What Tarantino makes Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx do in that time is close to appalling, not on any sort of moral or ethical grounds or any nonsense like that (briefly: the morals of Django Unchained are something of a hot topic right at the moment, but I found them to be no more or less fascinating than in your standard revenge plot. The film's racial component is what has a lot of people stroking their chins, but my views on it here are no different than they were for Inglourious Basterds, and I'm afraid I don't have a great deal of interest in hashing all that out again), because morals or ethics or whatever don't actually enter into the thing I'm trying not to describe because it's the very end of the film, and am therefore tying myself into knots about. But here's what it is: Tarantino turns his film into a cartoon. It was basically that already, but not significantly or unpleasantly more so than Kill Bill Vol. 1 (the Tarantino film this most resembles). Here, though, it's the kind of cartoon so many of Tarantino's harshest critics have accused him of making, that is, one with no weight or seriousness as a piece of art, a live action cartoon as reference-factory. "What you just saw doesn't matter," Tarantino seems to be saying here, and this is exactly the kind of thing I, as a Tarantino fan and defender, have always argued he never does. Yet here, he does it, and it was an uncomfortable thing for me to witness.

Where that leaves the film, or where that leaves me and the film, I don't know. "I liked it," is what I would say to anyone who asked me. There are some wonderful things here, and I was rarely bored. But what it puts me in mind of, now that I sit here struggling with it, is David Lynch's Wild at Heart. I've always said that Wild at Heart is Lynch's worst film precisely because it's the only time where Lynch seems to have caved into both the hype and criticism of his previous films, and made a movie that is in effect composed of all the easy reductions of his previous work -- all they are, are weird violent sex fantasies, or whatever and etc. In his own way, I'm beginning to fear that's what Tarantino has done with Django Unchained. Tarantino beats Lynch in that this is not a bad film, nor is it even Tarantino's worst. But speaking as a fan, a certain uneasiness can't help but set in.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


So, who is Tom Ripley? When I ask this question, I must limit the scope to Patricia Highsmith's original novel, as well as to Anthony Minghella's 1999 film adaptation, as well as -- and this is more to the point of today's post -- René Clement's 1960 adaptation of the novel, called Purple Noon. The Clement film was released last week as a gorgeous Blu-ray by Criterion, and in the lead up to that release I was moved to finally -- finally! -- read Highsmith's novel and rewatch as much as I was able to of Minghella's film. And there, as it pertained to "research" prior to watching Purple Noon, my focus had to stay. I haven't read any of the other books of what I've recently learned is sometimes referred to as the "Ripliad," Highsmith's series of five novels, which she wrote over the course of pretty much her entire forty-something-year career, about a quite appalling and very clever murderer. I've seen the two adaptations of the third book, Ripley's Game, Wim Wenders The American Friend with Dennis Hopper as Ripley, and Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, which stars, as it was foreordained, John Malkovich. (The second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground, was turned into a film in 2005 by Roger Spottiswoode, with a screenplay co-written by His Eminence, Donald E. Westlake, and starring the not-quite-as-foreordained-as-John-Malkovich Berry Pepper as Ripley. To my knowledge, no one in the world has ever seen this movie.) But so, with that needless bookkeeping aside, I'm left asking "Who is Tom Ripley" because how the man is depicted in the Minghella and Clement films, and how those depictions do or do not match Highsmith's original, is something that people who care about this stuff care about quite a lot (I'm not judging, for I, too, care).

It's perhaps to be expected that Minghella ends up taking it in the teeth a bit, in comparison to Clement. The idea is that Minghella portrays Ripley as altogether too emotional, too damaged by others, too empathetic, even, and that Ripley as originally imagined by Highsmith was more of a cold-blooded alien, using humans and their weaknesses however he saw fit. The Ripley that exists in subsequent novels may well be like that, but in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella is not that far off when he shows him to be an awkward doofus scrambling for acceptance. I might as well dispense with the important elements of the plot now: Tom Ripley (Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Alain Delon in Purple Noon) lives in New York (San Francisco in Purple Noon), just barely getting by, when he's approached by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn in Minghella's film, barely there at all in Purple Noon) and asked, because Mr. Greenleaf has an inflated sense of the relationship between the two, to go to Italy, Mongibello specifically, and talk his son Dickie (Jude Law in Minghella's, Maurice Ronet in the Clement film, in which he is, for some reason, named Philippe Greenleaf) into returning home. Mr. Greenleaf will pay him to do this, and Tom agrees, seeing all sorts of potential in this situation. Once there, Ripley's psychopathy and sociopathy begins to bleed through -- in Highsmith and Minghella, Ripley is clearly sexually attracted to Dickie, and he soon idolizes the shallow young man, whose relationship with another American expat, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow in the one, Marie Laforet in the other) Tom dismisses as being one-sided on Marge's part. In Minghella's film, it might well be; in Highsmith and Clement, it's harder to say. In any case, Dickie is not one to idolize, but not because Tom is better than Dickie. Try telling that to Tom, though, who soon feels rejected and hated and angry. He decides to murder Dickie, not only out of vengeance, but also because Tom, a gifted mimic and forger, sees that with some hard work and imagination, he can take Dickie's place, and live Dickie's life, and spend Dickie's money. Not with Marge, who he intends to let down, as Dickie and via the Italian mail system, as gently as possible, which is to say, what Ripley would consider gently, which is to say, not very gently. Throw in a smug pal of Dickie's who becomes supicious, named Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman/Billy Kearns) and some Italian police, and you have the basics down.
Now, Minghella is not wrong, if his degree of faithfulness to Highsmith is of paramount importance, in making Ripley somewhat sensitive. It is true, however, that he goes overboard (this is something I talked about with Bryce Wilson as I was reading the novel, and he was correct). One of the unappealing things about his film, which is only really unappealing after you've read Highsmith, is how unpleasant he makes Dickie. Clement does this too, to a degree, but as we'll learn Clement is doing all sorts of different things in Purple Noon. In Minghella's film, Dickie is mean and thoughtless and selfish and brutish. In Highsmith, he's just kind of shallow, really. Freddie Miles is also much worse in Minghella's film -- he's barely in the Highsmith novel -- and (here's a spoiler for you) when you consider that these people, as victims, account for both the murders Highsmith included, you do sort of have to ask why Minghella felt compelled to push our sympathy so far in the direction of their murderer. Highsmith, who from what I understand was a genuine misanthrope in real life, does not do this. What interests her about Tom Ripley in that first novel is depicting a man who has always had the capacity to commit murder inside him but wasn't really aware of it, and then when the moment comes he finds without any surprise that he's entirely capable of taking another person's life. From there, her novel is about existing with this, not on the killer's conscience, but simply as something that is now part of his life. It's a thing he can and will do again, and he's fine with it. It's like suddenly discovering you have a talent for music. That's the skin-crawling brilliance of Highsmith's novel.

But Minghella wore his bleeding heart on his sleeve, and he seems to believe that if a person is living a sad life, which is how Highsmith portrays Ripley in the early parts of her book, then that life must be so sad, and so unfair that any victims left in the wake when the person living that life kicks back, must have had it coming, if not in strict moral, eye-for-an-eye terms, than at least in some karmic sense. If we're to sympathize with Ripley even after two murders (but not after three, Minghella having added one at the end, rather effectively, it must be said, and in a way that does sort of cut into the queasy empathy he'd been building up to that point) then his victims have to be a couple of real assholes. This is the sort of thinking that gets people like John Dillinger and Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde turned into folk heroes, and it's one of the time-honored movie cliches I'm least fond of. The curious thing about ending up feeling this way about Minghella's film -- a film I used to like a lot more than I do now -- is that it is, in terms of plot, quite faithful to the novel. It's not even unfaithful to the spirit, really, at least for a while. But my problem, fundamentally, is that what interests Minghella about Ripley is not as interesting as Ripley is, as he was originally conceived.

So where does this leave René Clement and Purple Noon? Clement achieves that weird thing that great filmmakers sometimes do, which is to adapt a great novel and remain more faithful to it by diverging wildly from it. Clement doesn't lose his mind and move the action from Italy to Antarctica and set it in 1980 (note: in 1960, 1980 would have been the future), but he does change a lot, some of it subtle, some of it rather bold. To begin with, Purple Noon kicks off with Ripley not only already in Mongibello -- Mr. Greenleaf's extremely brief appearance comes at the end -- but he's already locked into his relationship with Philippe and Marge. There's no build, Tom Ripley doesn't appear to be harboring an uncomfortable obsession with Philippe, no apparent hatred for Marge (quite the opposite, in fact). The key scene from Highsmith's novel, when Dickie stumbles on Ripley dressed in Dickie's clothes and just basking in them for various reasons, which Minghella also mines for all it's worth, occurs something like twenty minutes into Purple Noon, so that it's significance is not at all the same. Clement allows for some kind of strange sexual component when he has Delon, before Maurice Ronet as Philippe Greenleaf walks in, kissing his own mirror image, but whatever's going on in Ripley's head at the moment, which Highsmith would make clear to the reader if not to the somewhat muddled Ripley himself, and Minghella would probably have someone state outright, is left, by Clement, in the character's head. Purple Noon is not an act of psychoanalysis, which to varying degrees the other two versions of the film could be regarded as.
Not long after, we will learn that Ripley's plot all along has been to murder this man and take his identity. He tells Philippe as much, and then follows through. Minghella portrayed it as an act of passion, for Highsmith its status as a planned act lasted only a couple of hours, from conception to execution. In Purple Noon, Ripley could have been thinking about this for weeks. This changes Ripley utterly, or perhaps strips him to his core. It's hard to say which. Possibly neither. Pretty clearly though, in Clement's version, Philippe Greenleaf may not have been his first murder, which even in Highsmith we know for a fact Dickie was. In Purple Noon, Ripley does not discover that he's okay with committing murder, rather, he's always been okay with committing murder. Even if Philippe's his first victim, his own ease with it had long ago been worked out in his mind. As Ripley, Delon portrays the occasional moment of panic, where appropriate, but otherwise he's extraordinarily certain of himself. And why shouldn't he be? There's a conceit to Highsmith's premise, having to do with Ripley's physical resemblance to Dickie, which she pushes about as far as it can go, and perhaps further, and which Minghella really doesn't quite bring off, that Clement, Delon, and Ronet nail beautifully. There's no doubt in my mind that Delon's Ripley would fool the people he fools in Purple Noon, and without any kind of conscience to hold him back, why shouldn't his confidence be soaring? In Highsmith, Ripley only becomes truly comfortable with his own safety at the very end; Delon plays Ripley as though safety was his due. Clement takes this as an opportunity to eventually pile on the irony, in his biggest departure from the original novel. This is not Highsmith, but it is extremely interesting.

The other thing about Purple Noon that noses it well ahead of Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley is that it's just wonderfully made. I'd say a lot of this has to do with the fact that Clement made his film only seven years after Highsmith's book was published, and therefore his Mongibello would quite naturally resemble Highsmith's far more closely than Minghella's almost-forty-years-removed, art-directed-to-shit approach (I'm not knocking Minghella here, I basically like his work, but this is the deal with period pieces), but also take, for instance, the murder of Freddie Miles. There's nothing wrong with the way Minghella handles it, but Clement's framing, and clinical noting of odd details, recalls Highsmith's chillingly plainspoken style. Actually more to the point is that here Clement's editing and shot choices put me in mind of Jean-Pierre Melville, which, if there's higher praise I'd like to hear it. But that is the way Clement approaches this story of a murderer -- the way Melville approaches his stories about thieves. Stylistically, anyway, but when dealing with murder, the criminal mind becomes far less fathomable than it would be if all that was happening was some money was being stolen. This is why, for all its many and significant differences, Purple Noon feels more like Highsmith than Minghella's more surface meticulousness: Clement doesn't pretend to try and make us understand Ripley, and he knows that Highsmith was only fooling you into thinking you did.

Monday, December 3, 2012


One of my favorite movies from 2009 is Dogtooth, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, about a husband and wife, mostly the husband, who have constructed a bizarre alternate reality for their three adult children to grow up in, one where the meaning of words as we – those of us fortunate enough to have not been doomed to exist in this family – know them have been altered, with the purpose, one assumes, of making the son and two daughters easily controllable, and making them unfit to live in the actual world beyond the high walls that surround the family home. Dogtooth is quite a bit stranger, and darker, and funnier, and more unsettling, than that brief description indicates (it also puts me in mind of the excellent episode of the new The Twilight Zone from the 1980s called “Word Salad,” featuring Robert Klein as a man who wakes up one day to find the English language gradually turning into gibberish), and, so it should logically follow, it made me very curious about this Yorgos Lanthimos character, and what his whole deal is.

After watching his most recent film, Alps from 2011, which is being released on DVD tomorrow by Kino Lorber, I’m no closer to knowing what his whole deal is, but whatever it is I’m still on board. Once more co-written by Lanthimos and Filippou, Alps very much resembles Dogtooth, not least because once again language comes in for a...beating? I don't know, but it seems clear that Lanthimos and Filippou look at the whole concept of verbal communication somewhat askance. In this film, four people -- two hospital works, a rhymic gymnast, and her coach -- have formed a group their leader (Aris Servetalis) has dubbed "Alps." It's not an acronym, but rather meant to refer specifically to the mountain range. The idea is that no other mountain range can replace the Alps, but anyone would be happy to have one of the Alps' peaks step in and sub for, say, Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Alps are irreplacable. And what the Alps, the group of four people, I mean, do, is they make contact with the families or friends of the recently departed and, for a fee, will play the role of the deceased for a period of time until the grief of those in mourning passes. Such is the idea, anyhow.

What's pretty key here, though, is that the premise of the film (if you don't know what it is going in) doesn't become clear until after Servetalis has pitched his idea to name the group "Alps," which, at the time, may not seem like such a big deal, beyond the fact that Servetalis chooses the name of the Alps highest peak as his own inter-group nickname. Pretty arrogant, but he's the boss, so fine. But then you know what this group is all about, and his explanation for why "Alps" is a good name becomes almost breathtaking in its presumption. So if these four people are the Alps, and nothing can replace the Alps but the Alps can replace anything, then as far as Servetalis is concerned his group is better than the dead people they're replacing. When you come to learn what kind of a person Servetalis is (he's a scumbag), this makes some kind of sense. But I mean, Jesus Christ.
In terms of plot, there isn't much. Like Dogtooth, Alps is a series of scenes that depict what it's like to be in this group, and to be the kind of person that's in this group. And I don't mean "a group like this," I mean this group. Lanthimos is nothing if not specific, and he portrays the four main characters as being quite a bit removed from normal human society, steady jobs or no. The film opens with the rhythmic gymnast (Ariane Labed, who has a very Dogtooth air about her, even though she wasn't in that film) practicing her routine to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." When she's done, she explains her missteps to her coach (Johnny Vekris) by saying she would really rather perform to a pop song. Her coach responds by saying she's not ready for that, and if she keeps this up he'll break every bone in her body and then she won't be able to perform to anything. Later, the meek, frightened, desperately sad gymnast attempts to win the goodwill of her coach by stripping off her top and contorting her body into, I guess, gymnastic poses, while extolling his many virtues. As desperately sad as her character is, so is this scene, not least because it's very clear that this very thing has been demanded of her before.

The character who you might for a while think is the most with it is played by Aggeliki Papoulia (now she was in Dogtooth). She works in the hospital with Vekris, and it's through her that most of their clients are found. This would suggest that if Vekris is the president of Alps, Papoulia is the vice president (how these two ever hooked up with the gymnast/coach team to form this group is never explained, a good creative choice, as far as I'm concerned), and perhaps Vekris does consider her his second-in-command, but whether he does or doesn't, Papoulia is coming apart at the seams far more than even the gymnast. Papoulia's mental collapse, which takes the shape of her disturbingly close bonds with some of the clients, forms whatever narrative Alps has.

But there's so much more that's strange and interesting about this film. For one thing, I mentioned language, and how once against Lanthimos and Filippou mess with it. This comes from the lines the Alps have to memorize -- they're basically actors, after all -- in order to closely approximate the dead people they're stepping in for. We see them rehearse, not just among themselves, but with their clients, and it turns out the Alps are terrible actors. But somehow the repetition of words spoken by the deceased gets under the skin of at least Papoulia, even after the words have been repeated so often that the context falls away and it all becomes the spluttering of a madman, or madwoman. And speaking of acting: from Vekris's point of view, the process of successfully completing an Alps project involves almost no emotional buy-in, but rather the focus is on minutiae (which they're not even consistent about -- one dead man wore a certain kind of eyeglasses that Vekris demands the client provide, but the fact that the deceased was bald, and the Alps planning to step in is not, doesn't concern him) about the deceased's life and interests. When Papoulia or Servetalis home in on a hospital patient they think might soon be shown across, they pepper them with banal questions, such as "Who is your favorite actor?" The answers are always American, or anyway Hollywood (Jude Law is in there once) actors, and you wonder, with this kind of shit taking up all their planning, how any of their jobs can ever work.

And I don't know that they do. Much of the film's dark humor comes from seeing some of these in progress, and it's always absurd. What's more interesting to me, however, and this was also the case in Dogtooth, is that whatever his intentions, Lanthimos's brand of very dry surrealism does not finally reflect anything back at the viewer. The members of Alps are crazy, but this doesn't necessarily mean that anyone else is. Dogtooth was about a crazy family that had chosen to isolate itself from society, and very few people from the regular world get a look in (granted, one of the few who does has a lot of problems herself). That's not what Alps is about, but Lanthimos tells the story in a way that still isolates them, and in some cases we see reactions from the sane world to their behavior, and those reactions are not at all unlike what I'd expect from myself, or you, or anybody else. As for anyone buying into their services, well, grief does funny things to people. In any case, those services, it turns out, are not as close to Hospice-for-the-grieving as a thumbnail sketch might make you think. Knowing Servetalis's character as we eventually do, it's hard to not see them, or at least him, the mastermind, as chillingly, bewilderingly, delusionally mercenary. I give this business six months, tops.