There are long-held historical antagonisms between the French and Germans, but Lea and Aaron believe they are past all that. They are new Europeans. The only thing standing in the way of their prospective union is her son, Tristan. He speaks English, the language of his father and Euro-skepticism. The vacation intended to forge a new family unit will take a tense turn in Jan Zabeil’s Three Peaks, which opens today in New York.
Aaron is a lumberjack-looking architect, who would ordinarily be considered prime husband and fatherhood material. That is how Lea sees him, but Tristan will need more convincing. That was the whole purpose of this trip, but Tristan is proving difficult. Lea tries to walk on tight-rope, respecting the place of her son’s very-present (but not in this movie) biological father, while still promoting Aaron’s merits. Yet, that often leads to frustration for both of her male companions.
In fact, Tristan’s needy, attention-seeking behavior and sometimes alarmingly dangerous practical jokes start to put a strain on their romantic relationship. Frankly, little “Tris” seems to be making progress in his cold war to undermine Aaron. The question is whether he is a bad seed acting intentionally or just a naïve innocent with a talent for stirring up trouble. Naturally, things will come to a head on the titular Dolomite Mountains.
Three Peaks is a carefully calibrated work, featuring three very impressive performances, but sometimes it is too airless and posed, like we are looking at a series of Ingmar Bergmanesque dioramas. Zabeil’s disciplined approach shuns melodrama and histrionics, but its austerity will make some viewers want to scream.
Still, Alexander Fehling gives probably the best performance of his career as Aaron. It is slow burning work that builds and compounds. Young Arian Montgomery constantly causes viewers to rethink and reconsider just how evil Tristan, the little monster, really is. Arguably, Berenice Bejo has the least developed role, but she easily convinces us in the power of a mother’s love to ignore or excuse some unsettling actions.
It is a bit of a stretch to call Three Peaks a thriller, but it is far darker and murkier than any healthy conventional family drama. Cinematographer Axel Schneppat feasts on the harsh but striking landscape, doubling down on the film’s chilly vibe. This is a film you will respect, but it is hard to love, just like sulky Tristan. Recommended for moody Euro cineastes, Three Peaks opens today (6/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.