Greek auteur Giorgos Lanthimos' latest venture, Alps, is out on DVD this week and proves as unsettling, bizarre and memorable as his acclaimed 2009 feature film Dogtooth.
A group of people hire themselves out to the newly bereaved. They are led by Aris Servetalis's paramedic who names the business after the mountain range because, he claims, it does not reveal exactly what they do and yet is symbolic. The Alps, he tells his three colleagues - a young gymnast, her male coach and a nurse - are so imposing that each of them could stand in for another mountain and yet they are irreplaceable. He names himself after the highest one, Mont Blanc. His rationale is as bizarre as his business plan. Mont Blanc's office is in a gym where he interviews perspective clients and introduces them to the members of the group who will enter their homes and take on the roles of the recently departed. Their intervention is meant to help the grief-stricken deal with loss until such time that they feel able to move on.
What makes Lanthimos's work so refreshing is his quirky, highly original storylines and audacious cinematography. Aggeliki Papoulia's hardworking nurse becomes so obsessed with her role playing that it begins to take over her life. The line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred and she starts crossing boundaries with her clients. Gradually, we realise, she is herself struggling with loss and grief.
All the principle characters are, to some degree, damaged, but it is the women who suffer the most. The nurse and the gymnast are effectively controlled by the two men in the group. Mont Blanc proves cold and brutal when crossed, while the coach constantly undermines his young protégée's confidence and denies her the opportunity to make her own choices.
There is both humour and sadness in the way the characters rehearse their roles, delivering their lines in dead pan voices like bad actors or automatons, and their desire to fulfil their clients' demands, however bizarre. But their 'professional' empathy is empty and potentially damaging. The paramedic thinks nothing of grilling a young girl (a promising tennis player, bleeding profusely in his ambulance) for the name of her favourite actor after telling her that she probably won't make it. Later, when she does die, his two female colleagues vie for the opportunity to stand in for her.
Of course the whole premise is absurd. Members of Alps can never replace the real thing and everything they are involved in becomes devoid of meaning. This is driven home in the explicit sex scenes that are mechanical and unerotic. The headless shots and characters breaking in and out of frame give a vivid sense of fragmented lives.
It's intentionally disconcerting, but part of Lanthimos' skill as a filmmaker is that he constantly pushes boundaries both cinematically and in terms of narrative. He persuades us that the surreal could be real. The bereaved want to believe in the scenarios they create and we sympathise with their desperation.