By Thomas Puhr.
Pretense is not a bad word in Alice, Through the Looking; it’s a given…. The question becomes whether or not these antics serve a purpose beyond provocation.”
In Alice, Through the Looking (2021) writer-director Adam Donen quickly announces his intention to break as many perceived conventions as possible. The first few minutes, we discover, are not so much the film proper as a trailer for it (complete with critic pull quotes). Whether this conceit strikes you as clever or insufferable – I can’t imagine middling responses, which I suppose is something of a compliment – will likely determine the amount of patience you’re willing to give the feature debut of 12th Battalion Productions.
Indeed, this sequence is a mere appetizer to the self-satisfied posturing that follows; soon after, we’re subjected to winking Tarkovsky and Godard references, enough quotes to occupy an entire semester of an undergrad intro to philosophy course (ever heard of a guy named Kant?), and lines like “The difference between comedy and tragedy is where we fuck.” Pretense is not a bad word in Alice, Through the Looking; it’s a given. I’m confident Donen would readily admit this. The question becomes whether or not these antics serve a purpose beyond provocation (or, in my experience, a steady stream of irritation). The answer, in short, is no. I’ll do my best to summon the strength to explain why.
We’re subjected to winking Tarkovsky and Godard references, enough quotes to occupy an entire semester of an undergrad intro to philosophy course, and lines like ‘The difference between comedy and tragedy is where we fuck.’
As its title indicates, Alice, Through the Looking is a (very) loose adaption of Lewis Carroll’s novels. Here, Alice (Saskia Axten) is transplanted to contemporary, Brexit-saddled England, where she embarks on a journey to find her “white rabbit”: a masked man with whom she shared a passionate night of softcore lovemaking (and, as foreplay, some Slavoj Zizek quoting; the philosopher also makes a brief appearance). Helping her along the journey are psychologist Dr. Catherine Pillar and private investigator Cat Pillar (both played by a game Joerg Stadler, who you may recognize as the Nazi whom Jeremy Davies belatedly kills in Saving Private Ryan). Other characters from the source material come and go (two inept cops stand in for Tweedledee and Tweedledum), but the film is more akin to a series of vaguely-related sketches than a fairytale or allegory. And since Alice herself disappears for long stretches, I’ll just leave the summary at that.
Admittedly, some of this satiric trickery works. When the film “ends,” we watch Donen (really playing up the Godard persona) get torn to shreds by a sweaty producer (Steven Berkoff). “Shit!” is his one word response, following a private screening. It’s a funny – albeit on-the-nose – moment, one which makes it quite clear the filmmaker is aware he’s getting on our nerves (but an annoying toddler who knows he’s annoying is still, you know, annoying). The problem is that this scene – by far the best, thanks to Berkoff’s absurd, straight-faced delivery – doesn’t arrive until nearly 70 minutes in, long after the pretentious jokes about how pretentious the dialogue is become stale. Another bit with Monty Python’s Carol Cleveland as the Queen (honestly, I’m baffled by the number of wonderful character actors who pop up; did I mention Vanessa Redgrave is the narrator?) provides some nice slapstick gore, but these are small consolations in an otherwise grating experience.
Alice, Through the Looking attempts to inoculate itself against criticism by constantly criticizing itself, a postmodernist ploy which might work in a short (see the abovementioned producer scene) but can’t fuel 90 minutes. Donen may throw as many aspect ratios, strobe-like montages, and eggheaded dialogue at the screen as he wants, but the cumulative effect is that of a filmmaker preemptively (not to mention desperately) defending his creative decisions rather than letting them speak for themselves. In his quixotic quest to simultaneously embrace and evade every cliché in the book, he fails to explore any of the avenues around which he energetically skates – how, for instance, the West seems incapable of understanding itself through anything other than Western philosophy, cinema, literature, etc.
Alice, Through the Looking reminded me not of something new and radical, but of those fumblingly awkward student movies made by Eliza (Grace Van Patten) in The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). If you want to enter a recent film which genuinely feels like a nightmare beamed from another world, then watch (or re-watch) Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s La Casa Lobo (The Wolf House, 2018). Or, if you insist, you can always go back to Godard. Lord knows Donen has.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.