Yorgos Lanthimos returns this autumn with his third feature film Alps, an extraordinary follow-up to the award-winning Dogtooth, imbued with Lanthimos’ trademark style.

Escape and escapism lie at the root of cinematic narrative, born out of the traditional literary desire to create ever-more spectacular visions of other worlds while emphasising a degree of believability to make the task of make-believe all the more immersive. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos utilises this notion of escape to explore the limits of human behaviour in superficially humdrum worlds. The sets and characters of his new film, Alps, are everyday and unassuming, and yet the situation that the latter have created for themselves is extraordinary bordering on the absurd.

Alps explores the work of a disparate group of four individuals – a gymnast and her coach, a paramedic and a nurse – who provide an impersonation service to the bereaved. The “Alps” assume the roles of the recently deceased in the homes of their families, lovers and friends as a paid-for service that is intended to ease the pain of grief and slowly introduce mourners to a life without their loved ones. While these families and friends are complicit in the charade, they live their moments with the Alps as if they were with their “characters” – briefing the chosen Alps member on the deceased’s habits and mannerisms, and lending favourite clothes to make the experience more believable. They then shift awkwardly back into assuming their everyday lives with the Alps member visiting as the deceased until the client chooses to end the arrangement. Lanthimos’ is a bizarre vision, not only of the complexities of grief but also of the motivations of the central characters in assuming such a strange occupation to begin with. Although the service is a commercial venture, each character has a regular occupation, and there is little indication that financial gain is the sole motivation for any of the participants.

The chillingly seamless operations of the Alps start to fall apart when the nurse (Mount Rosa in her alias) begins to take on work outside of the agency’s knowledge and form increasingly personal relationships with her clients, growing ever more confused about the boundaries of her role. While the destructive elements of the Alps’ work is most apparent in Mount Rosa, other Alps also slowly suffer from a form of obsession with what they are doing, questioning the realities and fictions at the heart of the film.

Alps is Lanthimos’ third feature film and follows the critically acclaimed Dogtooth, which gained the director international recognition including an Academy Award nomination and the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. While Dogtooth portrayed its protagonist’s desire for an escape to reality from a fantasy world created by imprisonment with her dysfunctional family, Alps illustrates an adult desire to escape from reality into different characters and their parallel realities. Lanthimos explains that the film’s original concept was not born out of Dogtooth but was actually conceived before he recognised Dogtooth’s success: “We just had in mind to go on working on something new … The idea started from discussing death and how people cope; if your friends and family remember you when you’re gone and how do they deal with that? From that we came up with a story that serves as an explanation of these ideas, and we found ourselves much more attracted to these people who are actually offering this service.” And while the services of the Alps are pure fiction, the reality of grief and the human desire for role play are the project’s impetus: “While this is not a common situation, this thing of adopting different behaviours in our everyday life is something that’s quite common in people to varying degrees. That’s why we chose someone who wants to do this thing and gets absorbed by doing it and I think that’s something which is really evident in our everyday lives.”

As a title for the film and for the group itself, Alps is a precursor to its more bizarre elements: “It’s representative of the way of thinking of these people and the tone of the whole film.” In the eyes of the group’s leader it is appropriate because it is simultaneously relevant and irrelevant – having nothing at face value to associate itself with the group’s work while also highlighting the uniqueness of the famous mountain range (and subsequently the group’s members and their abilities to stand in for others). While the justification makes a vague sense it is entirely esoteric, highlighting an ability in much of contemporary culture to find meaning in nothingness. “This is part of the film because it kind of makes sense … but it does look ridiculous from the outside. In some ways you can understand it when you’re out of this situation; you can observe it and see how ridiculous, or funny, or sad it can be,” says Lanthimos.

These elements of tragicomedy are a unique aspect of Lanthimos’ work, and the reason why Alps defies categorisation. He explains that this demands a constant process of adaptation and adjustment: “You don’t really know [the elements of comedy] until you see them happening. It’s definitely something that’s there in the script, but in trying to change the script into an actual film, things change and transform in a way you couldn’t imagine or foresee.” Throughout, the film treads a fine line between comedy and tragedy but: “It’s such a fine balance [and] it works differently with each person.” And while Mount Rosa’s disintegration generates increasingly dark, erratic behaviour and a deeply destructive sexuality in her relationships with clients (and her own family), it is accompanied by a strong physical comedy in her visits to her father’s dance classes, the inadvertent hilarity of her sexual experiences, and her bizarre mannerisms at the homes of her clients.

The issue of escape – from the realities of the Alps’ own lives, from the grief of their clients and from the very fundamentals of human existence – is integral to the film. Mount Rosa becomes darkly proactive in seeking future clients for the agency, cultivating a friendship with the teenage victim of a car accident before her death, then propositioning her parents about her stand-in skills immediately after announcing the news. She appears to have an unhealthy desire to assume the identity of her characters, seducing the dead teenager’s boyfriend in her own home and breaking into her parents’ home once the contract is terminated. The escapism of the roles is paramount to Mount Rosa’s part in the Alps, and is an extreme illustration of man’s ability to lose a grip on reality. Lanthimos attributes this need for escape and storytelling to the very basic elements of human nature: “It starts from a young age. Children are great liars – the way they behave, the things they want, there’s something very calculated in their performances. We do have that somehow in our nature – to adapt to different situations and to change our nature basically using role play.” Lanthimos also highlights the huge variety of reasons we all have for assuming such different roles in our own lives, arguing that “we do it everyday … because we want to achieve certain things, or because we want to make a certain impression on a person to feel more comfortable. Of course wanting to escape is part of it, but there are many different reasons why people do that and the same person does it for different reasons in different situations.”

While Alps could raise difficult questions about the ethics of manipulating the emotions and day-to-day existence of the bereaved for financial gain, often the monetary aspects of the Alps’ work are secondary, almost irrelevant, to their everyday practice. We get the impression that none of the Alps are adopting their roles for purely fiscal purposes, and because of this the focus is brought back to the basic elements of human nature, before financial concerns: “Although the original idea was to offer these services as a way to make some more money, it’s also that some of the people think they are doing some good to the people who are grieving. I wanted to include these different kinds of mentality and the different ways that each of these people approach what they’re doing.” Furthermore, the recently bereaved clients take only a supporting role in the emotional aspects of the film; there is little indication of their thoughts and feelings, and their performances with their hired actors are as stilted and awkward as the Alps’ performances themselves: “I thought of it as a very interesting dynamic to reveal the vulnerability of all of these people and the lengths to which they’re willing to go to reassure themselves that they are not getting out of their standard lives … We didn’t deliberately portray them as emotionless regarding their loss but we chose not to focus on that part of the film because then it would become a completely different film about how these families or friends or lovers deal with their loss of these people.” Awkwardness is an integral part of Lanthimos’ work and continues the very staged, self-conscious performances of Dogtooth: “It is part of every kind of relationship but much more so in this situation.”

Closely cropped, short focus frames emphasise this discomfort by mimicking the human eye and placing the viewer in these stilted situations, so that the cinematography maintains a strong focus “on very specific parts and very specific characters in a scene,” and events are gradually revealed to the viewer. Lanthimos used this method to avoid “getting lost in the scene by seeing lots of different elements and details. Things start to become clear to you in much more depth because you’re allowed to focus on one thing; you hear more clearly and start to imagine things that are happening out of the edge of the frame and, to me, that’s more revealing for the scene than trying to show every little detail, expression and reaction from one person and another person.” In addition to heightening the experience for the viewer, the overt acting and false natures of the Alps and their wooden performances, both in “normal” situations and in their roles as the recently deceased, showcase an interesting dynamic between them and their clients. In the midst of all of the role play and manipulation, there are brief hints of real emotion and human relationships for the Alps members themselves. Aside from Mount Rosa’s removed sexuality, there is a slightly destructive and emotional tenderness between the gymnast and her coach – partly a teenage crush, partly a sexual manipulation. Similarly, we witness the coach harbouring real feelings of affection towards one of his older clients for whom he has assumed the role of husband, but these elements of “reality” are overlooked to focus on the role in hand – being a part of Alps – and the coach never transgresses from his “professional” role in the same way that the nurse does. He is able to maintain the distinction between professional and private that the nurse has blurred, and this is emphasised in the increasingly destructive sexuality that she brings to her roles.

Alps is an exceptional example of taking sociological elements of human nature, studying social structures, and making them extreme: “Our main way of structuring our films is that we discover certain patterns or behaviours in everyday life, society or relationships and we want to explore these things in extreme situations.” Inevitably the absurd therefore enjoys a starring role in the work and, while Lanthimos avoids being intentionally confusing, his work encourages the viewer to piece the narrative together and engage with the characters: “I just believe that it’s more interesting to watch something in which I have to be engaged and use my own mind and imagination to piece things together … watching the film reveal itself and being surprised by what I find.” These parallel worlds reveal “many different things” about their characters, “taking things to extremes to discover where it blows up,” and combining the emotional, the absurd and the chilling in a dynamic process.

Alps is released in cinemas nationwide on 9 November by Artificial Eye.

Ruby Beesley