Toronto 2011: 'Dogtooth' director is back with 'Alps'
There may be no flat-out stranger movie in the annals of the Academy Awards than the Greek film "Dogtooth," a nominee in the foreign language category this past season. (The film, about a couple who imprison and torture their children, created waves last year; some critics disliked its explicitness and (very) black comedy, and many theaters wouldn't book it.)
Director Yorgos Lanthimos is back on the festival circuit with his new film "Alps," which just had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Enigmatic and seemingly allegorical in a manner similar to that of "Dogtooth," Lanthimos' new film is no simple repeat performance. This time out, a small group of people, part club and part business, substitute for recently deceased loved ones in an attempt to ease the grieving process for family members. Equal measure absurdist comedy and deeply felt drama, the film builds a startling emotional momentum. (Slight spoilers ahead, though there is really no explaining nor spoiling Lanthimos' storytelling.)
Co-written by Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, who also collaborated on "Dogtooth," "Alps" won the prize for best screenplay following its recent world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. We caught up with Lanthimos for a few minutes at Toronto's Bell Lightbox theater facility Friday as he came out of a screening of "Outside Satan," the new film by French art-house titan Bruno Dumont. His initial response to the film? "Well, I have to think about it."
The way you're talking about the Bruno Dumont film you just saw is similar to the way people talk about your films.
This is not similar. It's not like you have to figure out stuff. [With Dumont] you have to figure out if you're OK with it. I try as much as I can to leave room for people to discover things on their own and start thinking about stuff and not have one particular view on things or try to force a perspective or an opinion. I try to be precise about what I want to investigate, but the results I leave to people.
In relation to "Dogtooth," "Alps" was at once more accessible and more mysterious. It was as if you were somehow explaining more as a device to also conceal more.
You have to set up something for people to be involved in, to be able to investigate, so I guess that's a way of doing it -- give certain information about one aspect of the story but then allow them to explore the rest of the story and what's happened to the characters or one scene or whatever each person wants. I find it always interesting to discover things, not lay everything out and then follow a very common, particular story. I think to me the interesting experience about such a film is exactly that, to discover this whole system, how it works, how everybody fits into that -- that's the important part of the experience for me and not just explaining it.
It also strikes me that where "Dogtooth" was more overtly political, "Alps" is concerned with more personal matters.
Well, no. "Dogtooth" was never meant to be political anyway; it's perceived like that and that's fine. It's easy to make the association of a family to having the same structure and values as a bigger society, to a country, the way a country relates to other countries. But that was not our initial goal. We just wrote the story about the family and then, again, the way we construct films we allow people to associate them with anything they want. We did a similar thing here, and I think people who really try to find political associations will, and ones who will want to investigate the more intimate and personal details and things about human behavior as individuals can do that too.
There is the storyline of the nurse in "Alps," which seemed to be about how we can find deeper emotional resonance in things that are outside ourselves rather than part of our actual lives.
I mean, it could be that, but other people would say something different.
And the gymnast who only wants to be allowed to perform her routine to a pop song and not classical music, that seems to be about how tradition does or does not fit into modern life.
Again, I never reject these thoughts, because I'm welcoming all these thoughts and I like that. But I never thought of that, I just thought that it was an interesting way of showing how futile this whole thing is, and this one thing this girl wants, it's not important compared to what's going on. The only thing that is achieved in the end, although you have expectations about people losing loved ones and trying to replace them and comfort them, all these big issues, and there's this stupid need by someone that might be equally important. In the end, the only thing achieved in this film is she gets to dance to a pop song instead of another one. That's how I tried to view this thing, and it bookends the film also.
Is it difficult to design the story to cover the bases of whatever you might be interested in, but to also build in these trapdoors and left turns to camouflage whatever the film may actually be about?
I think we do it more instinctively. When I see that something becomes too compressed and too guided to a specific path, I try to avoid that and keep the ambiguity of it. It's not like, "OK, let's put in this scene to throw people off the track." It never works like that. We are just concentrating to try to be true to the way we work, the way we explore what we do. And the things that we find acceptable in doing that allow all this freedom. It's not like we have it all the time in our minds.
Can you talk about your interest in dance as a form of physical and emotional expression?
I work with my actors in a very physical way. I guess dance is the ultimate expression of that. It's just inevitable for us at some point to use the ultimate weapon of physical expression in the film.
Does it ever annoy you to hear all these different theories on what your films mean?
It's always fun for me to listen to all these things that I haven't thought of. The more experience I have with screenings and films that I make, I expect these kinds of reactions from people, and it's always interesting to hear them. Most of the time, when people have enjoyed the film and you do Q&A's, it's not real questions; people are just saying their take on the film and what they felt and how they perceive it and how they explain it. It's more like a dialogue and it's much more interesting than asking questions about why or what does it mean. It doesn't mean anything; things are.
-- Mark Olsen
Photo: A scene from "Alps." Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.