Jennifer Peedom’s 70-minute big-screen reverie Mountain inspires something that the biggest, purportedly most “awesome” movies of our era just can’t stir: awe. The subject of Mountain, of course, is mountains, their fearsome majesty, overwhelming deadliness and harsh indifference to us. But from the extraordinary opening shots — after a quickie behind-the-scenes intro establishing that, yes, the film truly is scored to the sounds of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the narration of Willem Dafoe — a more dramatic concern seized me. How the hell did they film this? Behold the tiny, fragile human climber midway up the endless rock face, feeling around for the next hand- or foothold, proportionately something like an ant traversing the flat expanse of a movie screen.
Then swallow back your lunch as Mountain cuts to a shot from above, peering down at a climber from a precipice. This is vertiginous filmmaking from the top of the world, a rhapsodic fugue shot from vantage points that — this cannot be stressed enough — our bodies aren’t equipped to survive. (Renan Ozturk, a climber of note, served as director of photography.)
Mountain surveys, without narrative or title cards, slopes and cliffs and apexes around the globe. We often see climbers but never follow them for more than a shot or two. The camera, aided by drones, skims so close over craggy peaks that I swear sometimes my feet tickled. The film was crafted in collaboration with the ACO, whose selections — Beethoven, Grieg, Vivaldi — shape the material. Rather than simply scoring what we see and cueing us to feel more deeply what the images already suggest, the music in Mountain plays like the film’s organizing principle, as if the many shots of ascents and vistas have been arranged to illustrate it. The relationship between image and music, here, proves more rich and rewarding than the movies generally offer today, as one is not clearly subordinate to the other.
Its heights might on occasion yank your stomach to the theater floor, but much of Mountain is a bit of a bliss-out, a chance to contemplate the planet’s most remote and dangerous places and our relationship to them. Dafoe’s narration is spare, the words taken from the work of Robert Macfarlane, author of 2003’s Mountains of the Mind. The book is a study of the cultural history of mountains, how over centuries they shifted, in the consciousness of humanity, from foreboding or divine to places of sport and leisure and rah-rah self-improvement. MacFarlane’s book is excellent, but the filmmakers have given Dafoe only the plummiest poetic bits to intone, tasking him to muse without context about the “siren song of the summit” or “a testing ground on which the self can best be illuminated.” The words are lofty but, unlike the marvels on display before us, not solid or monumental, not rooted in the Earth.
Mountain’s other examples of humanity leaping too far, too wildly, are more pleasurable: an extraordinary extended montage of people descending the slopes, on skis or motorbikes, or vaulting off cliffs to glide or parachute. Through inventive camerawork and adeptly chosen music, the filmmakers showcase daredevils dancing with gravity itself. And in fleeting, thrilling moments, you can almost sense in your seat what it would be like to participate yourself.