By Gary M. Kramer.
Made in 2017, but just getting a release now, Jan Zabeil’s Three Peaks is a flinty chamber drama set mainly in the Dolomites. And despite the spectacular mountain range location – the title refers to Aaron’s (Alexander Fehling) favorite rock formation – most of this nervy film is extremely claustrophobic.
The story opens in a waterpark where 8-year-old Tristan (Arian Montgomery) is playing a game in the pool with Aaron. While the park is crowded, Zabeil creates an intimacy between Tristan and Aaron, ignoring all the people and activity around them. Aaron is trying to connect with Tristan, who is not his child, but his lover Lea’s (Bérénice Bejo) son.
However, Tristan is finicky with Aaron. Moreover, he no longer speaks French with Lea, who is dismayed by this. He also refuses to join Aaron and Lea on the park’s waterslide. Whether he is afraid, or weather he is jealous of Aaron’s attention and affection for Lea, is best left for viewers to decide.
As the trio head out to a cabin in the mountains, they fall into a kind of domestic routine. Snippets of conversations reveal details about the relationships. Aaron overhears Tristan talking to his father in English on the phone; Lea debates moving to Paris with Aaron; Lea also asks Tristan if having a baby brother or sister would not be so bad. Aaron and Lea are looking to have a child together; unfortunately, their efforts at being intimate are disrupted by Tristan who sneaks into their bed at night. Tristan is obviously having trouble accepting Aaron and Lea’s relationship. This trip is an attempt to resolve that issue.
While these minor dramas play out in the first half of Three Peaks, the film features a few moments that telegraph how thing will play out in the film’s stronger, second act. When Aaron is cutting some wood alongside Tristan, a small act of violence occurs. When Lea catches a mouse in the cabin, Tristan later lets it go free. And there is also a scene involving a mousetrap that is both symbolic and foretelling.
Tristan is the apex of the triangle here and his behavior is what gives Three Peaks its tension. He is coddled by Lea, who wants to protect her son as much as she wants him to bond with Aaron. Aaron says he really loves for Tristan like his own son, but he also feels suffocated by the child.
It is around the midway point in the film, when the domestic drama starts to get tedious, that Aaron and Tristan head out to the mountains to see the sunrise. It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that the characters have a fight and get separated. And Zabeil starts to ratchet up the suspense with every footfall. As Tristan wanders alone in the mountain range, will he remain unharmed? Is Aaron’s interactions with Tristan impacting his rescue efforts among the snowy peaks?
The film focuses on Tristan and Aaron trying to reconnect in the mountains. (An earlier scene where Aaron asks a blindfolded Tristan to guess his location from the sound of his voice hints at the difficulty of this task). Zabeil may be manipulative here, drawing out the action and creating some not unexpected scenarios – a misstep, an injury, and a scene in icy water that echoes the opening pool sequence – but he does this artfully. When the screen clouds over white with mist, it is a breathtaking moment.
But it is the emotional component that resonates here. During this intense episode both Tristan and Aaron reveal their true natures. When they do, viewers will likely pick which character to root for. Moreover, Zabeil cannily allows for just enough ambiguity in the film’s ending to leave audiences as unsettled as the trio of protagonists.
Part of the film’s potency comes from the two robust central performances. As Aaron, Alexander Fehling plays his part internally during the first half. He tamps down Aaron’s emotions and frustrations, going along to get along because he does not want to upset the fragile relationship he has with Tristan and Lea. Watching Fehling contain his responses to avoid conflict makes his more physical performance in the second half so thrilling. It would spoil Three Peaks to reveal how Fehling uses his body in the punishing mountain scenes, but it is exciting to watch.
Fehling is well matched by Arian Montgomery whose demeanor and facial expressions convey so much of what he does not say. And when Tristan does say something alarming, it packs a wallop.
In support, Bejo is not given enough to do, but Lea’s interactions with Tristan and Aaron feel authentic.
Three Peaks features some glorious cinematography as this domestic drama plays out. The film may feel a bit slight at times, but it is often quite absorbing.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.