Picture an eight-year-old boy deliberately cutting his divorced mother’s boyfriend’s forearm with a handsaw. This moment in the low-key but compelling Three Peaks signifies writer-director Jan Zabeil’s gifted capacity to plumb the mystery beneath human behavior. It would be easy enough to write this action off as just an out of control kid or a boy with no boundaries “acting out”. It’s also easy enough to say the boyfriend needs to get the heck out of the relationship.
However, feelings are complex and the situation Three Peaks examines puts that complexity right on the table, or better said, right on the mountainside. The present day situation is that of a mother and son spending time at the boyfriend’s cabin in an isolated region. Aaron (Alexander Fehling), a German architect, is ruggedly individualistic, kind, and intelligent. He is aching on some level to be a father, and one senses that being one actually is his true calling. However, this may not be the right fit.
Unfortunately, young Tristan (Arian Montgomery) is quite ambiguous in his responses and reactions to the man. On the one hand he trusts the man and seems to appreciate Aaron’s virtues, insofar as an eight-year-old is perceptive enough to discern them. But understandably he is torn between a natural allegiance to his biological father and to this new Hercules who now stands to usurp him—meaning the boy.
Tristan seems to realize that his father and the bed where his father once lay with his mother has been usurped also. The scenes where Tristan is in bed with the Aaron and his mother, non-sexually, are very telling. Does the eight-year-old feel like her failed protector? At one point there’s a revealing interchange about the boy’s biological father being physically weaker.
Lea (Berenice Bejo), a French woman, also seems ambivalent about the situation. There’s no doubt that Aaron arouses her erotically and his stability of character is a great big plus. However, she cannot come to terms with Tristan seeing Aaron as a second father, which puts the man in a difficult emotional position. To what degree is Lea using her sexuality as a form of blackmail to procure security in her and her son’s life? To what degree is she conscious of this or not?
Three Peaks moves in its own time at its own pace so we are present to discrete moments. In other words, we are made to be present to the film, moment by moment. It’s the kind of approach that northern European filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman were noted for in the last century; and which American filmmakers were sometimes chastised for doing too little of.
However, it’s this approach that brings clarity to the complexity. Mother and son don’t realize the passive-aggressive signals they are assaulting the boyfriend with, though the viewer certainly does. In turn, Aaron, for all his natural hunter-gatherer instinct and intellect, fails to read the writing on the walls. Have his unmet father needs gotten the best of him?
These three superlative actors bravely enter the visceral realm of a boy and a man competing for a woman, where the unpredictable subconscious rears its ugly and even monstrous head at critical points. As Zabeil delves into the primal, yet intricate nature of men, women, and children, without any overt commentary built into the dialogue, we’re given an organic critique of the problem of second marriages, or relationships en route to that. All three performances are Oscar nomination caliber but unfortunately, given that Three Peaks is a German-Italian production with subtitles, it’s not likely that will happen.
Axel Schneppat’s cinematography of the Italian Dolomite Alps is intimidatingly majestic, not to mention, beautiful. His images capture nature as indifferent in its severity. The juxtaposition of the human characters with the terrain is humbling. In contrast there are great “little” moments of human relationship to mice and insects. Nature is to be respected or else! In big or small forms! As the story unfolds you’ll see how that nature component enhances the human drama to spellbinding effect.
Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis