Arthouse films are a different breed from most mainstream films. They often stress style and and creativity over straightforward story-telling. Since arthouse films are independent productions, the filmmaker usually has the final word about every detail of the movie. There are no studio staff and moguls to dictate changes to affect marketing.
The Mountain, a recent arthouse film co-written and directed by Rick Alverson, features plenty of individual style and creativity. It received nominations at several major film festivals. Unfortunately, the pace of the film and its abstract story-telling have disappointed me and a portion of audience members.
The plot deals with lobotomies. Set in the U.S. in the 1950s, a doctor, played by Jeff Goldblum and based loosely on real-life physician Walter Freeman, travels from asylum to asylum performing psychosurgery on those deemed mentally ill and out-of-control. He operates on patients who display behavior more aggressive than mid-century American society was willing to accept. In real life, lobotomies were performed mainly on women, and I have read that the procedure was considered by some as a legitimate treatment for housewives who did not find contentment with their suburban lifestyles.
Lobotomies were performed from the 1930s till the1960s, when they began to be deemed barbaric and a denial of a patient’s rights. The process involved placing two spikey mallets into the eye sockets in order to sever connections to the frontal lobe of the brain. Subsequently, the patient lived a strangely calm, in some cases zombie-like existence, rid of any nervous tensions and medically detected delusions.
Here, Alverson’s approach to art relies on strong atmosphere and a disjointed plotline. Basically, Goldblum’s character, Dr. Wallace Fiennes, hires a quiet and eccentric young man Andy, played by Tye Sheridan, to accompany him on his journey from one state mental hospital to another. Andy’s own mother is a patient at one stopover. Andy takes photos of the surgeries with a newly-marketed Polaroid camera.
The American 1950s are shown through two symbolic details. One is a television clip of Perry Como singing “Home on the Range” which repeats through the film, and the other, oddly enough, is the handful of rayon shirts with front flap pockets worn by the doctor and Andy. Having lived through that decade of American life, I find those two icons to be a fascinating, albeit comical implication of the period.
Goldblum and Sheridan give measured performances. They are very much in tune with Alverson’s creation. At the start of the film, Udo Kier, cult German film star, has a few minutes of quality screen time. Later, Denis Lavant, star of a number of important French art films, appears. His performance is difficult to understand; he acts out a cacophony of sound, music, poetry, and just loud noises.
The plot involves brief scenes, not much of an arching storyline, and a peculiar ending. There is an underlying theme of sex, twisted, uncomfortable sexual thoughts. There is a sick-minded display of perversions of dreams, delusions, and illusions. The Mountain is photographed in a stark, cold, harsh manner that caters to these themes.
Why is it called The Mountain? The symbol of a mountain is Utopia, a perfect world. Alverson is making a statement, but I missed its sublety. It’s a brave move for any filmmaker to construct a film about lobotomies through artifice. However, as adventurous as it is, this film is close to unwatchable. Alverson’s pacing is all about his art and not about his audience. Boredom ensued soon after the introductory scenes, and I felt as though I were under the influence of a strong sedative until the end credits rolled.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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