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The Alpinist - a film review

Updated: Jun 7

Our premiere screening at last weekend's London Mountain Film Festival event was a sell-out - make sure you see this on the big screen when it is released across the UK this weekend. Words by Sam Huby.

film poster for the film The Alpinist which was a full length feature distributed by Dogwoof showing a man ice climbing without ropes

OK, there’s a new climbing documentary just released featuring a socially awkward young wunderkind making solo ascents of previously unthinkable daring on the world’s most iconic climbs. There’s a misfit childhood, a girlfriend, a proud, but anxious and slightly bemused mother and a series of the sport’s elder statesmen stroking their beards in disbelief. Does any of this sound familiar?

The Alpinist doesn’t shy away from parallels with climbing’s first breakthrough blockbuster, the Oscar-winning Free Solo. In one of the opening sequences Alex Honnold himself is asked which contemporary climbers impress him and his first pick is “This kid, Marc-André Leclerc.” (Honnold was 32 at the time). Yet despite the similarities and an at least equal helping of stomach clenching, vertiginous footage The Alpinist is a more thought provoking and perhaps troubling film.

The protagonist Marc-André Leclerc might be a throwback to a purer, more idealistic era which perhaps only existed in the minds of ageing climbers reminiscing about their own halcyon days. At the age of twenty-three he’s an endearingly geeky and laid back presence showing little of the obsession, hyper-focus and attention to technical minutiae that have become regarded as a prerequisite for performance at the top levels of the sport.

Little obsession that is apart from the fact that all he wants to do is go climbing.

Marc-André Leclerc the climber in front of a snowy mountain looking happy

There has been climbing media for as long as there has been climbing, and hustling, self-aggrandisement and the annexation of mountain exploits for commercial gain are nothing new. Yet in a world where big climbs are Instagrammed and hashtagged ad nauseam and sponsors’ logos are everywhere prominent, Le Clerc’s almost anachronistic attitude to the publicity, the media and even what most people would consider the most basic necessities of life is refreshing. His indifference to domestic comforts is, even by the generally low standards of the climbing community, remarkable. Without even the mobile accommodation of the #vanlife stereotype, he seems at various points to have made his homes within a snow cave at the base of an icefall and a derelict stairwell.

He doesn’t have a phone and when the filmmakers provide him with one he promptly loses it. At some point during the making of the film he simply fucks off to climb somewhere and the crew only find out that he’s on the summit of a mountain on another continent from pictures on other climbers’ social media posts. It’s not that he’s irritated or distracted by the attention, or that he has a particularly defined philosophical objection. He’s just not that interested.

And here lies one of the films principal challenges. Here’s this guy almost single-handedly pushing the boundaries of modern Alpinism, making ascents of truly mind-blowing vision, skill and audacity - and except to a relatively small number of knowledgable contemporaries he's completely anonymous. Who wouldn’t want to make a movie about that?

So there’s the rub. The very act of making and promoting the movie threatens to undermine one of its central hypotheses, but the filmmakers are skilful enough to dance around this.

He’s obviously given his consent to the film and there’s a passing reference to his first sponsorship deal. After all, the notion that anyone, even the most bumbling of us, doesn’t want a film of us in our moment of glory seems almost unnatural. This among a couple of other things gives rise to some structural difficulties. The cinematic highlights come early with sublime and terrifying drone and handheld footage but Le Clerc’s most astonishing feats are performed, at his own insistence, alone and away from cameras. As he says “It wouldn’t be a solo to me if somebody was there”.

But unlike most 'adventure films' this one is a complicated proposition. At the level of spectacle it’s unparalleled, even with a bar set so high by Free Solo and The Dawn Wall (the latter also co-directed by Peter Mortimer). At the preview at the London Mountain Film Festival last weekend there were repeated gasps of horror and amazement, covering of eyes and unprintable expressions of disbelief from a full house of fairly hardened outdoor types. ‘Balletic’ may be an overused word in describing the flow of someone climbing at the peak of their powers in a situation of utmost seriousness, and yes, the elegance and control shown in the climbing sequences may have something to do with clever editing. But nevertheless there’s a vivid glimpse, however fleeting, of the beauty and sublimity of moving along that outermost of edges.

Yet there’s an uneasiness in watching this level of risk as entertainment.

Extreme Alpinism is lethal for a significant proportion of its practitioners and it's not easy to admit that at some level this contributes to its appeal to both participants and audiences. Although of course, again, this is nothing new. There have been bouts of moral panic before regarding young tigers pushing the boundaries of what’s deemed to be acceptable risk in the mountains. In 1938 for example, the usually measured editorial of the Alpine Journal described the Eiger ‘Mordwand' as 'an obsession for the mentally deranged', even as the telescopes on the balconies of the Hotel Grindelwald were trained on the dangling body of Toni Kurz.

In contrast, Le Clerc makes clear more than once that this is a profoundly private experience and as noted he minimises or excludes completely outside observers from what clearly for him are transcendent moments.

The ambiguities and the inexpressible appeal of this strange world are perhaps best expressed in the film by Reinhold Messner, himself no stranger to such things - “It’s difficult to defend. If death was not a possibility, coming out would be nothing. It would be kindergarten. Not an adventure. Not an art.”

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