Those who think heights are better left to the birds might find themselves looking for an early exit in Mountain, a ravishing feat of vertiginous filmmaking set to a score of old and new classical compositions recorded by Richard Tognetti (Master and Commander) and his Australian Chamber Orchestra. Examining our historical obsession with the titular peaks, director Jennifer Peedom's follow-up to 2015's Sherpa is a different beast entirely, ditching a traditional human narrative to focus on that film's majestically indifferent backdrop.
The result is one of the most visceral essay films ever made, with Peedom and her Sherpa altitude cinematographer Renan Ozturk unfurling a series of glistening images that should be seen only on the biggest of big screens. Gliding shots of snow-capped mountains ringed by clouds and the daredevils who climb them are overlaid with excerpts from Robert Macfarlane's 2003 memoir-meditation Mountains of the Mind, voiced with suitable cragginess by Willem Dafoe. Festival play is assured before this Aussie production is released locally in September.
Peedom begins the film in black-and-white, with the members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra limbering up at the Sydney Opera House, where Mountain premiered last week. That's the last we see of them, with editors Christian Gazal (Sherpa) and Scott Gray (Top of the Lake) cutting to elevation before a string is plucked. In a queasily transporting sequence that had the Sydney audience holding its collective breath, the camera swoops in on a free climber (without ropes) scaling up a sheer cliff face, and our proximity to him is vertigo-inducing.
The impressionistic narration credited to Peedom and Macfarlane locates the rise of cities as the point at which recreational climbing began, driven by a desire to reconnect with nature. A quick history lesson follows, with footage of early alpine tourists snowplowing down gentle inclines, and Hillary and Tenzing glimpsed briefly. Their courage is contrasted, in a capsule version of the argument Peedom made in Sherpa, with that of Everest-goers in 2017, who depend on the disproportionate risks taken by the local Sherpa population. Today's adventurers don't climb, Dafoe tells us — they queue.
The ACO cycles through Vivaldi and Beethoven as well as compositions from contemporary artists like Arvo Pärt and Tognetti himself, with the occasional use of vocals. The filmmakers hop across continents armed with drones, Go-Pros and helicopters, from Tibet to Australia to Alaska, and the switch between formats on the big screen is noticeable though unobtrusive. Peedom has also found plenty of footage of BASE jumping, mountain biking, wingsuiting and even tightrope walking (across two peaks in Castle Valley, Utah) that will be familiar to anybody who's ever been on YouTube. The film's attitude to these feats is cryptic, reveling in their sheer stomach-clenching spectacle while describing the athletes who pull them off as "half in love with themselves, half in love with oblivion."
At 70 minutes, Mountain feels slightly overextended, stretched out to feature length. But its discursions offer moments of great beauty, whether venturing inside a Sherpa monastery or recording a mountain expanding and contracting, as though breathing, via the magic of time-lapse photography.
The film's fragments are held together by the score, which sometimes works in interesting counterpoint to the images, undercutting awe with horror. The ACO collaborated with Jonny Greenwood a couple of years ago but largely resist ambient atmospherics here, favoring violin, piano, cello and vocals with a composite score that burnishes images of extreme risk-taking without sacrificing delicacy.
Production company: Stranger Than Fiction Films
Narrator: Willem Dafoe
Director: Jennifer Peedom
Screenwriters: Robert Macfarlane, Jennifer Peedom
Producers: Jo-Anne McGowan, Jennifer Peedom
Director of photography: Renan Ozturk
Editors: Christian Gazal, Scott Gray
Composer: Richard Tognetti
Venue: Sydney Film Festival