What is the proper reaction to the death of a loved one? Considering that it will happen to all of us (and happens, as Blue Oyster Cult reminds us, to forty thousand men and women every day) there still is no universally accepted road map for grief. Should one huff gasoline like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Love Liza? Should one commit unnatural acts in an unfurnished apartment like Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris? Should one simply face a setting of natural beauty and triumphantly shout the name of the deceased like Victor Banerjee in A Passage To India?
After a disorienting opening that introduces a small group of people – some of whom work as health care providers, others who appear to be doing gymnastics training – they are eventually revealed to be self-appointed vigilantes against grief. They find parents or spouses of people who have died and, for a modest fee, will engage in sessions that can help the bereaved take baby steps toward acceptance. What they do is study up on the person who has passed away and then reenact scenes from daily life.
As described, this may sound like a segment on “60 Minutes,” but keep in mind that Yorgos Lanthimos is the director of the Oscar-nominated exercise in depraved social control Dogtooth, so you can rest assured that things get deviant quickly.
Alps extends its oddball premise beyond that of a short story by keeping its characters at a distance. Our therapists take their work as serious as resistance fighters, yet even with intense training it is soon discovered how difficult it is to “get things right.” The group leader has an rigid code he wants his people to stick to (and deviation from this leads to the film's climax) and it is clear that everyone considers this very important business. Nevertheless, a dark, dry humor does creep through.
The scenes that tickled me the most were the ones that involved “running lines,” as it were, of a man and a therapist posing as his dead wife. They are supposed to fight in a lighting store, but her timing of when she is supposed to toss a lamp has to be discussed as if it were a play. Plus it is in English (Alps is predominantly in Greek) so the pronunciation is funny. This is topped-off with some lovemaking that has to be halted when the orgasmic wife accidentally is taken to “paradise” and not “heaven.”
I give this film a mild recommendation because Lanthimos is absolutely an intriguing, original voice on the international film scene right now. But if you look back at his resume ten years from now and discover that this is the one that you missed, I have a hunch you won't be kicking yourself too hard.