The appeal of mountain climbing, even to those who have absolutely no interest in partaking themselves, is special. The old colloquy of why one would want to scale a peak and then the intended interlocutor coming back with “because it’s there” both accentuates and disregards the mystery behind the climber’s obsession. In recent years there has been a sudden surfeit of climbing movies, both fiction features and documentaries, and the reason they’ve become so ubiquitous is twofold: climbers themselves have become skilled at the art of filmmaking; and drones. This combination definitely comes into its own with The Alpinist. The directors, Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, are both seasoned alpinists and they take as their subject a figure that, until the pair decided to make a movie about him, would have likely remained just another legend within a cognoscenti delineated by a fixation on a rare and infamously dangerous sport. Canadian Marc-Andre Leclerc was considered the best of the best, and not just because his rock and ice climbing skills were next to superhuman. Like all great artists he shunned anything that fell outside his specific art. When he climbed, he climbed solo and didn’t tell anyone about it, so his greatest feats were known only to him. Nevertheless, he did have friends, invariably part of the climbing community, and word got out. Mortimer and Rosen finally approached him about making a movie when he was barely into his 20s and he agreed as long as they didn’t get in his way. The Alpinist is suitably, fascinatingly wonky, because the directors are pleasing themselves first, but this attention to detail is what makes The Alpinist superior to the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, which was also directed by a pair of climbers, and is intrinsically linked to Leclerc’s m.o. of being tight-lipped and unflappable, whereas the subject of Free Solo, climber Alex Honnold, was more of a raconteur-philosopher, and thus a less naturally charismatic focus for a movie about an athlete, which should be about the doing, not the explaining.
What Mortimer (who also narrates) and Rosen provide in addition to the thrills and awe-inspiring visuals expected of mountaineering movies is a portrait of a loner that transcends the usual cliches about loners. Leclerc, who reportedly had ADHD, left high school at a young age simply to pursue mountain climbing and fell into the drug and alcohol scene that tends to materialize around people who live on the edge. The directors never let you forget that half of leading solo climbers die while pursuing their dream, but that Leclerc’s almost bizarre sense of self-containment while climbing (“filming him was terrifying, but he always seemed so relaxed”) was what made the production so irresistible. It also makes for drama that’s almost inexplicable. Leclerc was the son of working class parents who spent most of his youth just walking through the forests of British Columbia. That he eventually fell in love and spent time with a permanent girlfriend, also a climber, is seen as something of an anomaly since he wasn’t just a loner by temperament. He was preternaturally unconnected. The purpose of The Alpinist is to film him doing something he didn’t care about anyone else knowing—a climb up an impossible rock or ice face that Honnold would have likely trumpeted to the media because he needed the exposure for fund-raising. One of the uninvestigated mysteries of The Alpinist was how Leclerc supported himself. He was, in essence, a bum who lived day-to-day in order to climb. In one of the most poignant scenes, after a successful, treacherous climb in South America, he has to negotiate with a cab driver—in fluent Spanish—to get him to the airport because he’s broke.
Patrick Imbert’s The Summit of the Gods is a more conventional mountain climbing movie since it’s based on a work of fiction written almost 30 years ago, the award-winning manga by Jiro Taniguchi and Baku Yumemakura. Imbert, a French animator, adapted the manga as a French-language ode to classic anime, but local distributors have wisely redubbed it with Japanese dialogue, since all the characters are Japanese. The basic plot is a detective story. After covering an unsuccessful climb of Mt. Everest by a Japanese mountaineering club in the 1980s, photographer Makoto Fukamachi is approached by a local in a Katmandu bar offering to sell him the small camera that was supposedly lost by British climber George Mallory in 1924. Mallory didn’t make it back and his body not found until 1999, well before the action of Summit, so it was never clear if he actually made it to the peak. Fukamachi brushes off the local and then, outside the bar in an alley, he sees the local being shaken down by a man with a missing finger. Later, he suspects that the man was Joji Habu, who, like Leclerc, was a legend within local mountaineering circles for his daring solo climbs, but after he takes on an apprentice who dies during an ascent, Habu disappeared.
Unfortunately, the movie never really gets back on track with the Mallory mystery and wastes a lot of narrative time speculating about what happened to the British climber. Mostly, it follows Fukamachi’s pursuit of Habu, who in the meantime has been laying low in Nepal attempting his own solo ascent of the world’s highest mountain and, again like Leclerc, is not interested in anybody knowing about it. Fame isn’t in it. It’s all about the doing, and in that regard the platitudes come fast and thick and bog down the story, but Imbert’s animation is as stunning as the footage that Mortimer and Rosen achieved in The Alpinist, and because he can more readily manipulate these images, Imbert works them for maximum dramatic effect. Though I’m not a big fan of anime, what Imbert accomplishes here is stunning. To lay persons like me, the idea of climbing a mountain under the conditions depicted in The Alpinist and The Summit of the Gods is akin to fantasy of the most extraordinary type, and Imbert captures that quality perfectly.
The Alpinist is now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).
The Alpinist home page in Japanese
The Alpinist photo (c) 2021 Red Bull Media House
The Summit of the Gods in Japanese now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).
The Summit of the Gods home page in Japanese
The Summit of the Gods photo (c) Le Some des Dieux – 2021/Julianne Films/Folivari/Melusine Productions/France 3 Cinema/Aura Cinema