Diary of an SFF Fiend, Part II: The Mountain & Synonyms
By Fred Pryce
Today’s foreword reflects on the State Theatre, a venue that was not designed to screen films. Its large size and old-fashioned glamour is appealing for fancy premieres, but don’t quite balance out the constant distracting rumble of trains going underneath, hearing staff chatting in the lobby, and the not-great sight-lines from back corners. But it’s all part of the experience, as they say.
Speaking of which, an experience is what The Mountain can only be described as. Set in an eternally gloomy north-west America (think Twin Peaks) during the 1950s, director Rick Alverson refers to the film as “anti-utopian”, a rebuke to the smiling optimism of an era characterised by nuclear families and supposed opportunity. The rot festering underneath this shiny surface is symbolised by Dr. Wallace Fiennes, a lobotomist racing to various mental hospitals before the whole country rejects his inhumane practice (portrayed as something straight out of a horror film). Played by Jeff Goldblum, in a genius bit of casting that capitalises on his status as a weirdo sex symbol, Fiennes schmoozes women and drinks as an escape from his unbearably depressing work, and a violent glint always lurks behind his charm. Andy (Tye Sheridan), a 20-year old who has lost both his parents to death or lobotomy, is employed as his photographer, documenting Fiennes’ joyless patients and their dehumanising mental institutions. Every shot coldly and artfully composed within a square frame, and sapped of life and colour, The Mountain is slow, sad, and very odd, deadpan in the vein of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). It's a fitting aesthetic for a film about the crushing psychological weight of fitting in, from rigid masculinity to society’s various definitions of insanity. Andy is sexually and emotionally repressed to the point of acting no different from the lobotomised people he photographs, shambling stony-faced around these still frames and barely uttering a word, his frustrations bubbling up in dreams or through unhinged animalistic violence. A slow-motion Freudian freakout about the dangers of hiding our imperfections, the film creates a thick, heady atmosphere that threatens to drown you in its toxicity, much like the mountain fog endless roads wind through in the film. It’s not exactly enjoyable, but with so many rich and fascinating ideas, it’s sure to resonate with you for days after watching it.
Similarly offbeat is Synonyms, a French-Israeli co-production about a man who goes to Paris to try reforge his identity. Yoav has travelled there from Israel, but after his possessions are stolen and he passes out freezing in a bathtub, he is woken by an archetypally effete French couple and is essentially reborn. Refusing to speak Hebrew, he arms himself with a dictionary and throws himself into a new life as a patriotic Frenchman, but memories and identities remain inescapable, especially given how much meaning we assign people placed on their places of birth. Yoav is contrasted humorously with a friend works for Israeli intelligence, and sees Europe as a hive of anti-Semitic terrorism. Aggressively humming Israel’s anthem on the metro in the hopes of provoking a reaction, he signs up enthusiastically for a monthly brawl with neo-Nazis after wrestling his boss in a hilarious display of macho posturing. The film is semi-autobiographical to director Nadav Lapid, and he clearly has a lot on his mind, exploring the complex facets of Israel’s militarism, and Yoav’s fruitless attempts to scrub it from himself, in a freewheeling and unpredictable fashion. However, the film is torn between the story of a man going through this personal crisis, and a heavily symbolic diatribe about international politics. It lands somewhere in the middle, leaving the audience half-invested in undefined characters who don’t act quite like humans (the one female character being particularly underwritten), as they engage in confusingly metaphorical interactions. The length of the film and its lack of plot also leads to a frustrating watch, and though Tom Mercier’s magnetic (and often full-frontal) lead performance helps string your attention along until the next high-energy set piece, by the second hour the film feels like a slog. There are a couple of very different great films ready to spring out of it, but when mashed together their brilliance becomes murky.