Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' latest film, "Alps," proposes a novel, if disquieting, technique for grief counseling.
"Alps" is the name chosen to designate an ad-hoc group whose members stand in for deceased loved ones, purportedly to help the grieving through the transition. The first four sessions are free of charge.
So, a blind woman hires a member to play her dead husband, promising him his favorite dinner of schnitzel and potatoes as he leaves for work, and another to play her departed best friend, who would read to her.
The group choose the name "Alps" because they are a poor substitute: Just as no mountain can substitute for another, no stranger can substitute for a loved one.
Lanthimos said he is not aware of any such real-life phenomenon — but can't rule it out.
"Probably there are. Because we find out that whatever we think about later, there is a group doing the same thing," Lanthimos told a news conference Saturday ahead of the film's world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
While "Alps" was just an idea the director said he had with his fellow scriptwriter, Efthimis Filippou, they later learned of agencies in Asia that hire out actors to play a spouse or a date for a social event.
The four members of "Alps" are a nurse, a paramedic, a rhythmic gymnast and her coach who seek out the grieving with a proposition — which a surprising number of people accept. In a short interview, they establish routines with the grieving: pieces of clothing to wear, phrases to repeat, routines to follow during the periodic visits and such trivia as the names of their favorite actors.
The dialogue with which they engage the bereft is itself bereft of emotion.
The story focuses on the nurse, played by Aggeliki Papoulia, who passes from her real life to her role as a dearly departed. In one story, she stands in for the deceased Canadian wife of a Greek lighting store owner. She goes for winter swims in the Greek sea, as the wife would have. She acts out a significant fight over the wife's diabetes, crashing a lamp to the floor.
But her interaction with her own father is somehow just as ritualistic as her encounters with clients. She administers eye drops to her father at 10 p.m. each evening. She accompanies him to a local club where he dances, and reminisces distantly about her own dead mother's love of dancing.
"It's told basically from the point of view of the people who are getting into this different life, escaping their own life, and pretending to be someone else," the director said.
Though the "Alps" charge for their "service," Lanthimos said the film is not meant as a comment about economic desperation due to the ongoing Greek financial crisis.
"I think it is apparent from the film that of course that money is an issue. People are finding a way to make money in not the best way possible. I think it is also apparent from the film that that's not what actually drives them. They are more in need of other things than money," he said.
The movie could have been made anywhere in the world, he said.
"If we made it in another country, it might be something different that you saw. But there was no intention ... to convey anything specifically about Greece," Lanthimos said.
"Alps" is vying for the Golden Lion, which will be awarded on Sept. 10.