Directors: Peter Mortimer. Nick Rosen (USA). Year of Release: 2021
The Alpinist is a film by a climber about a climber – Marc-André Leclerc, a genial Canadian who was 23 when the film was shot. Marc-André is an exponent of solo climbing – using as little climbing equipment as possible, and preferably on a route that he hasn’t tried before so he doesn’t have any unfair advantages, like knowing the way. He is also very good at what he does – an early story tells how he broke a world speed climbing record by mistake.
The film reviews that I write on Wednesdays are disproportionately negative. The Berlin film programme runs from Thursday to Thursday, so by the end of the week I’ve often run out of films that I actually want to see. Added to that, I’m not excited by climbing. The amount of equipment and free time that you need makes it largely the terrain of poshoes with names like Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. If you add in my natural laziness, I am not the target audience.
All of this means that Leclerc is an entirely refreshing presence. The son of a construction worker and a waitress, he is described by a friend as being so poor that he doesn’t own a car. There are several shots within the film which show him hitch hiking to his climbs. He lived in a room with his girlfriend (Brette, a fellow climber), and when that got too expensive they moved into a tent. On his climbing excursions he often carves himself out an ice cave near base camp.
There is something here that is not being said. Marc-André is filmed in Canada, the US and Patagonia and there is talk of climbs in other countries. Someone is paying for all this. There is vague talk of sponsorship, but Marc-André does not give off the vibe of someone who’d be happy in a board room begging for funds. Let’s just say that he neither feels like a posh boy who is doing this as a dilettante-ish hobby nor as a chancer getting someone else to pay for his fun.
Both Marc-André and his mother tell us about his school days. He loved Kindergarten but got less excited when he moved up to junior school and had to sit peacefully at a desk. He got diagnosed with ADHD and his mother took him out of class and home schooled him. Despite his lack of academic success he is obviously bright. He reads voraciously, and seems to be multilingual – in the film, he speaks fluent Spanish, and with his name, you’d guess he might know a bit of French too.
His behaviour with other people is also contradictory. Brette describes him as being socially awkward, and you can absolutely see that. He seems temperamentally suited for spending long periods on his own on a cliff face. And yet, there are also scenes of him having beers with the lads. Before he took on climbing seriously, there were his wild student days where when everyone else was taking a tab of LSD, he took 6 tabs. There are some photos around documenting this.
Marc-André is such a fascinating character that the climbing scenes are anticlimactic in comparison. It’s just a man slowly creeping up the side of a mountain (maybe I’m not enough of a fan of the sport to give a nuanced view here). Added to this, although Marc-André looks in permanent mortal danger, you just know that if he were to encounter a serious accident on camera, that would be removed from the final cut. This somehow removes a lot of the jeopardy.
There are also many spectacular scenes from the top of a mountain or from the middle of a blizzard, which are certainly impressive but they are so vertiginous that I found myself immediately looking away. This meant that I not only missed many of the breathtaking views, I also found it hard to find empathy with anyone who found this sort of thing actually fun.
There were also a little too many talking heads here, who spent their time either saying what a great guy Marc-André (we get this better from watching him speak for himself) or how great climbing is (it’s a point of view). Yet for all that, and although this is a film that I had been reluctant to see, most of it is so compelling that it’s worth seeing even if you find the actual content pretty tedious.
The film has a coda, which contains plot spoilers so if you want to see the film first, go and watch it before you read the final two paragraphs. Are the only people left here those who have seen the film, don’t want to see it, or don’t mind finding out how it ends? Good, then let’s conclude.
While the directors are making their final edit, they learn that Marc-André has gone missing on a climb in Alaska. He and a fellow climber are caught in a blizzard which lasts for days and from which they can’t possibly have survived. Brette, Marc-André’s family and his friends are confronted with the tragic reality of what it meant when he said earlier on that part of the fun of climbing comes from how close you are to possible death.
But they do not blame his enthusiasm for climbing for his death. On the contrary, at a well-attended wake, his mother explains how it was a gift from God. Brette herself continues to climb, almost to preserve his memory. And yet both are clearly grief-stricken. This is a contradiction that the film never manages to explain, but this is in part because it is inexplicable. From childhood, Marc-André was encouraged by his mother to do things on his terms. In this sense he had a life worth living.