The Movie Guru: “The Alpinist” a fascinating portrait of an elusive climber
Grade: Three and a half stars
What makes a person spend their life climbing impossible mountains?
That’s the question at the heart of every climbing documentary, and it’s particularly relevant when it comes to “The Alpinist.” Opening this weekend, the movie follows some of the adventures of the elusive, groundbreaking alpinist Marc-André Leclerc. At the same time, it’s a chronicle of directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s attempts to answer that fundamental question, a two-fold narrative that makes both sides richer. Sometimes, the best way to see smoke is by our attempts to give it a shape.
Alpinism, or mountaineering, requires a mix of both rock and ice climbing on often enormous peaks. Leclerc made a name for himself by taking on huge challenges with absolutely no fanfare, including the first winter solo ascent of the Emperor Face of Mount Robson. Even in the wider climbing community he seemed to be mostly known through occasional sightings and ever wilder-sounding stories, like a unicorn that had decided to pick up an ice axe.
In person, at least in the documentary, Leclerc still seems a little bit like that unicorn. There’s an ephemeral quality to him, like he melts so fully into the experience he’s having that he’s no longer entirely within his own body. This is particularly true of interviews, which are normally a vital element in longer climbing documentaries. Though he gets more focused later, particularly when talking about climbing, you get the sense that a part of him is off on a mountain somewhere.
It’s a fascinating experience. Another climber in the documentary describes him as a man out of time, more like the climbers of the 1970s and 1980s than those of today, but Mortimer and Rosen make the far more impactful decision of letting us see it in person. “The Alpinist” includes a brief clip of the late, legendary free soloist Derek Hersey, and for the rest of the film all I could think about was how much he reminded me of Leclerc.
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At the same time, it leaves the movie with some practical considerations. Most full-length climbing documentaries end with the completion of some huge climbing project, a finale that provides both emotional satisfaction and some truly spectacular vistas. Leclerc’s intense unwillingness to be filmed means “The Alpinist” doesn’t have quite that kind of finale, despite the fact that he takes on a truly impressive peak. We don’t get to see very much of the climb, and hearing about it isn’t quite the same.
Maybe it’s the expectation that’s off, though. Mortimer and Rosen seem to know they aren’t making quite your usual climbing documentary, focusing more on Leclerc’s relationship to the mountains than the mountains themselves. That still gets us some beautiful climbing shots, stretches where Leclerc scales huge ice waterfalls with a glowing expression on his face. Watching him is nail-biting, but Leclerc himself couldn’t be more delighted.
It’s in juxtapositions like that where it’s easiest to see Leclerc, even if it’s impossible to fully understand him. Mortimer and Rosen’s valiant efforts to try, however, brought us a clearer, more hauntingly beautiful picture than we would have had otherwise.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.