Alexander Fehling and Bérénice Bejo play a couple trying to make their own personal European Union work against the stunning backdrop of the Italian Dolomites in German director Jan Zabeil’s new thriller Three Peaks.
Aaron (Fehling) and Lea (Bejo) are an attractive young couple. We first spy them in gorgeous long distance shot of a water park. They are tiny figures among the swimming pools and holiday makers. Aaron is playing in the water with Tristan (Arian Montgomery), Lea’s eight-year-old son. From the crowded water world, we are transported up to the Three Peaks of Lavaredo, in the Italian mountains, where Aaron tries to bond with Tristan and Lea and Aaron contemplate the possibility of starting another family of their own. There is ambivalence on all sides. Tristan seems to enjoy being with Aaron and has fun with him, but also talks to his father often on the phone and has a way of inserting himself into his mother’s bed.
Likewise, Aaron confesses to loving the boy so much – “I forget he’s not my son” – but occasionally wishing he didn’t exist. Especially when it comes to that starting a new family thing. And finally Lea is conflicted between her new love and her protectiveness towards the boy. The mountains are an inherently treacherous place – they represent the sublime, that awe-inspiring beauty that is fringed with the frosty sharpness of fear. Danger growls at night and an old half-fallen tree looms over the fragile roof of the cabin. Animal traps are ready to snap at you and the mountains themselves threaten avalanches and rockslides. Walking up into the lonely moonscape of the heights, Aaron shows Tristan how deceptive locating a voice can be with the echoing cliffs confounding the listener.
This confusion is echoed in the emotional confusion of the three protagonists. The boy’s watchfulness might be antagonism, or it might simply be a child’s uncertainty at the changing emotional landscape around him. The three leads manage their sides of the triangle admirably and the Zabeil photographs the mountains beautifully, fully taking in the scale that dwarfs petty human concerns. Fog can blank them out and sunshine suddenly emerge from tears in the clouds. For once, having a European soup of actors actually helps rather than hinders the story. The characters communicate variously in French, German and English – the indication is that Lea’s husband George has Brexit-ed early.
There is talk of moving to Paris, as well as having a child, and the Italian setting means that they are all displaced. As Aaron tries his best to fix his relationship with Tristan, the film takes a late turn into thriller territory and the full peril of the mountains becomes apparent. There’s something of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure in the working out of family power dynamics against a mountainous backdrop, but Three Peaks eschews the irony of Östlund’s vision. This is a powerful and beautifully shot film of love and survival.
The Locarno Film Festival takes place from 2-12 August 2017. For more info: pardo.ch
John Bleasdale | @drjonty