Three years ago, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos burned up the festival circuit with Dogtooth, a brilliant isolationist allegory about adult-age children who are kept on the family compound by parents who control (and wildly distort) information from the outside world. Lanthimos’ disappointing follow-up, Alps, is Dogtooth’s mirror image: Where the earlier film concerned young characters finally trying to break out of their proscribed roles, the new one is about a woman who desperately hangs on to false identities, because her real life gives her no satisfaction. Aggeliki Papoulia, who played the eldest sibling in Dogtooth, stars as a hospital nurse who moonlights as the member of the eponymous organization, which provides an unusual service: The recently bereaved can hire Papoulia or one of her three colleagues for a few hours a day to stand in as their deceased loved one, as a way of easing the transition.
As with Dogtooth, Alps picks up right when the system is finally starting to break down. Though this shadowy organization has a strict protocol—and enforces it physically, if necessary, with the business end of a rhythmic gymnastics implement—Papoulia catches wind of a teenage tennis player who dies on her way to the hospital, and she offers her services independently of the group. It says something about the sad contours of her own life that she would invest herself so deeply in the robotic charade of imitating someone else’s. Papoulia’s life, the nature of the business, the impact it has on the bereaved—Lanthimos presents it all as a great human mystery, a series of strangely comic (or just plain strange) encounters that aren’t engineered for a clean resolution.
Lanthimos’ skill at orchestrating these tense, creepy, shockingly funny setpieces is just as evident here as it was in Dogtooth, but too much of Alps is left vague. Though Dogtooth features an entirely made-up world, full of false word definitions and nonexistent threats, it’s carried across by a rigorous internal logic that’s conspicuously absent from Alps. There’s no sense of how this service ever works, and only a scant indication of the miseries from which Papoulia is trying to escape by assuming a new identity. The question marks just keep accumulating in Alps, with answers not forthcoming.