John Bleasdale Venice Film Festival

Venice 2018: The Mountain review

★★★☆☆

A troubled young man goes on tour with a renowned lobotomist in Rick Alverson’s wintry new work The Mountain, showing in competition at the 75th edition of the Venice International Film Festival.

Andy (Tye Sheridan) lives with his father (Udo Kier) and works at the ice rink where his father teaches figure skating. He dreams of hermaphrodites and porn closets. “Can I tell you about my dream?” he asks his father. “You’ve already started,” is the bland response. But father dies and mother is absent, hauled off to a lunatic asylum. When Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) turns up at the yard sale Andy puts on to sell his father’s stuff – he buys Andy’s father’s pipe – Andy decides to go along with him on his tour of regional hospitals.

Here, Andy begins to work as a driver and photographer, taking before and after portraits of the patients. “Can you smile?” he asks one of them. The answer that The Mountain gives is definitely a “no”. When the doctor and Andy come across local French charismatic leader Jack (Denis Lavant, in a rare English language role), there’s an immediate connection between Andy and Sarah (Hannah Gross), Jack’s mentally ill daughter.

Presented in Academy ratio, Alverson’s film is the colour of perfectly-made tea; his framing is immaculate and shots are repeated so they rhyme. There are some moments of absolute beauty – courtesy of Lorenzo Hagerman’s cinematography – a figure skater twirls on the ice suspended in time, a man and a woman converge midair. And the ideas are fascinating as well. The lobotomist is a relic who is still held in some regard – almost a celebrity – even as new pharmaceuticals are rendering him obsolete. Goldblum’s performance is brilliant, made up of equal measure charisma, brilliance, quackery, lechery and topped up with clinking glasses of booze. His exploitation of Andy remains a mystery. Though he’s positioned to fulfil a father role – he smokes Andy’s late dad’s pipe after all – there’s not much affection.

In fact, there’s not much feeling here at all. It’s as if the film itself has been stunned by a cumbersome lobotomy. Andy’s almost-catatonic state suggests he is slipping into his mother’s imbalance, but also means that the main protagonist has nowhere particular to go. Like Andy and the doctor, The Mountain winds up roads to then do vaguely ritualistic things to uncertain results. There are some interesting topics to unfold but Alverson and his screenwriters Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O’Leary, stubbornly refuse to develop anything that could endanger the general atmosphere of drab despair.

Sometimes the beauty is a problem. All the hospitals are photogenic artefacts and even Jack’s house – though he stomps about in unsightly long johns – is a perfect Frank Lloyd Wright construction with an interior like a high-end shoe shop. Ultimately, Alverson’s The Mountain is arthouse cinema at its frostiest. Like the lobotomist’s hands, you can admire the craft, while wishing it had been applied with more humanity.

The 75th Venice Film Festival takes place from 29 August-8 September.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty