Warning: there’s some nudity in this post.
Gioros Lanthimos makes some of the most immediately recognizable films out there today. His Dogtooth put him on the international map in 2009, though I prefer his 2011 (2012 here in the US) film Alps.
The funny thing about Alps is that I could see the concept playing (albeit rather differently) in one of those “quirky, indie” films (think: Sunshine Cleaning). In Alps a group of four people who take their “company” name from the Swiss mountains and their individual names from the mountains therein start a grieving service. For a fee one of them will impersonate the recently deceased to allow the relatives to let go gradually and in their own time.
Like Dogtooth, Alps is characterized by the affected, awkward performances that Lanthimos prefers. They work. Also like Dogtooth, Alps features moments of strange, laugh-out-loud humor, quick brutal violence, and uncomfortable sexuality. Lanthimos mixes in a static camera with handheld shots, frequently cutting back and forth between the two, and often staying in shallow focus close-ups.
Similar to another fantasy/reality film festival darling this year – Holy Motors – Alps really blurs the line between what is real and what is not, particularly as lead actress Aggeliki Papoulia (the older daughter from Dogtooth) starts to lose her grip on things.
I prefer Alps for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it operates less on a metaphorical level than Dogtooth did. There’s real human emotion in Alps, the performances are great, and it functions as a mystery throughout.
I also really like some of the games that Lanthimos plays visually. Here’s a great example. This series begins in a restaurant as Papoulia (who’s unnamed in the film) and one of her co-workers (played by Johnny Vekris) sit in a wide-shot at a restaurant. She’s trying to get him to do something:
After his response we immediately get a cut to the shot below:
Because Alps is very much (also) about male-female power relationships, what does this shot imply? Sex, of course. “I’ve thought of something” followed by a cut that is visually dark, where the female has despondent body language, in a bedroom/bathroom setting. But next we get this:
She’s giving him a haircut (referenced earlier in the film)! So the edit promises one thing, and the shots that follow give us something else. That’s not all. Following the only slow-motion shots in the film (perhaps a hint that something’s up)-
-Lanthimos then cuts to an overtly sexual image:
Now it’s unavoidable, right? He wanted a haircut and then sex. Not quite. As the scene progresses we learn that they’re now on the job and this is play-acting.
It’s all quite effective and a brilliant way to keep the viewer on his/her toes by the power of suggestion through the edit.
The Young Savages
John Frankenheimer is maybe best known for The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and a series of 1980s and 1990s flops, but his The Young Savages should rank up there with some of the great courtroom films. Taking on gang and racial violence in the same year that Robert Wise did it with West Side Story, Frankenheimer’s film has great performances from two powerhouse actors – Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters. It’s also the film that really puts Frankenheimer on a run of projects that not only includes the two referenced above (1962 and 1964, respectively), but also features Birdman of Alcatraz, The Train, and Seconds (my favorite of his).
The highlight of The Young Savages is Frankenheimer’s blocking and the cinematography by Lionel Lindon, which is truly a thing of beauty.
Here’s a look at some of it. The camera starts in a medium shot on a random couple in a cafe-
-and tilts up and pans and dollies left as Hank (Lancaster) enters with gang leader Zorro (Luis Arroyo) and one of his henchman:
Eventually Hank moves to the bar and Frankenheimer cuts in:
Zorro’s guy moves behind the bar and Frankenheimer then lets much of the scene play out like this:
Frankenheimer clearly subscribes to a classic school of blocking, as much indebted to television (economy – few shots to accomplish what you need) as to some of his famous Hollywood predecessors. He plays things out in depth like this quite often, with a character looming in the background while other characters hold a conversation in the foreground.
Aside from the aforementioned economy, it’s also useful to let us see reactions in real time, rather than via the cut, which would then also hide who sees what. This way all is laid plain. It’s a bit old-school in how all actors’ marks are slightly open to the camera as though playing to a stage, but with Lindon’s lighting it really feels elegant.
That’s a good way to describe much of Frankenheimer’s work, which frequently features tough-guy leads forced to face their past in the midst of a drastic situation. Despite the “streets” feel of The Young Savages, the war backdrop of The Manchurian Candidate or the surreal sci-fi of Seconds, his camera movement and actor placement is always traditional and regal.