What is wrong with people?
You think you understand that question. You think that because you live in the regular world and encounter jerks all day who act rudely in Starbucks or take up two parking spaces that that makes you an expert in wondering what's wrong with people. But you aren't. You're looking at the wrong that doesn't matter, the light-wrong. It's also why wondrously strange movies like this have to exist, to remind you of the Deep Wrong inside everyone.
Yorgos Lanthimos, whose last feature was the Academy Award-nominated Dogtooth, lives in the world of the Deep Wrong. Dogtooth was a daring outsider at the Oscars, a sore thumb of extreme, minimal weirdness, a film about a family that holds its own kids as prisoners, brainwashing them into obedience. And when Alps opens with a gymnast begging her controlling coach for a chance to perform her routine to a pop song instead of to Carmina Burana and his response to her is, "I will take a club and crack your head open and then break your arms and legs," it's clear that Lanthimos is revisiting that territory.
But the gymnast and her coach aren't just gymnast and coach. They're role-playing their own drama while participating, alongside a nurse and a paramedic, in a group called Alps. It's a Fight Club-style secret society of dedicated amateur actors who hire themselves out to the bereaved friends and relatives of the recently deceased, performing as substitutes for the dead while the people left behind move through the stages of grief. ("The end can be a new and better beginning," says the nurse to a couple who've just lost their teenage daughter in a car accident, a moment that succeeds at being hilarious and creepy.) Alps has code names, strict rules of service and, like the family in Dogtooth, a high level of interpersonal dysfunction. The members compete, deceive one another, spy, jockey for position and, in the case of the paramedic leader who goes by the code name Mont Blanc, exercise dominance whenever they can. And by whenever I mean always.
Stranger and even sadder still, they're bad actors, never convincing the bereaved that they're the spirit and presence of the person they loved, eventually developing entirely new and, by Alps rules, forbidden relationships with the clients. It's a world of disturbingly funny discomfort, as Lanthimos works in silences and unexplained actions, bursts of random violence and deeply mournful yearning. He leaves gaps in character communication, creating unsettling imbalances between the grief-softening world his crew tries to recreate and the reality of their failures. And the comedy is so bone-dry and deadpan that when you laugh you'll wonder if you should. It's like that.
Tellingly, each character references famous actors and musicians in their interactions with clients -- Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Prince, Harry Belafonte, Elvis, all substitute objects of affection themselves -- and late in the action when the nurse loses control of her own boundaries, acting out in ways that signal a personality break, "subbing" when she shouldn't, behaving inappropriately with her own father and behaving erratically, you know why. Projection of desires onto a stand-in is asking for defeat. Nothing lost is going to be returned, nothing that leaves you comes back, the joke's on you, so you might as well defy the coach and dance to that pop song while you've still got time.