TIFF Review: Three Peaks

Three Peaks (Drei Zinnen)
(Germany/Italy, 94 min.)
Written and directed by Jan Zabeil
Starring: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery 
Courtesy of TIFF

Three Peaks is bound to be dubbed the European The Mountain Between Us. Like the Kate Winslet/Idris Elba survival drama, which is also playing the Festival, this wintry white-knuckler sees two people stranded on a mountain where they must find common ground in order to survive. The lost duo of Three Peaks is a pair of strangers of sorts: Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Tristan (Arian Montgomery), the latter of whom is the son of Aaron’s girlfriend Lea (Bérénice Bejo). This fateful trip puts the future of this new family on a precipice as Aaron must decide to accept this child as part of his life, while Tristan must make an equally life-altering choice to view Aaron as a father figure. That’s an awfully big mountain to climb between them.

This taut and masterfully directed family drama from Jan Zabeil offers a restless and tense love triangle as the three characters vie for each other’s affection and navigate the possibility of existing together as one. The drama tests the relationships and loyalties of the three characters over the course of a few moody days. Aaron tries to take an interest in Tristan and involve him in his chores around the cottage, while Tristan keeps himself amused as best he can for a child without any friends atop a mountain. Lea plays peacekeeper with the two boys and encourages them to bond. But Tristan’s a clingy, bratty child and these fidgety days at the cabin become more anxious and tense as the time progress.

The saying goes that two’s company and three’s a crowd, and the idyllic weekend gives way to cabin fever. There’s a natural progression to the episodic action around the cottage. Mousetraps clank; saws slice wood; Tristan tests patience; Tristan draws blood; Tristan hinders nookie. The foreboding action and imagery becomes unnerving as Zabeil plays with the pace and alternates between restlessly drawn out scenes and quick cuts in which the characters, mostly Aaron, release pent-up energy.

The tension simmers as Aaron broaches the subject of parenting and his relationship with Tristan. Lea doesn’t like the idea of Tristan seeing Aaron as his father, or calling him anything beyond his given name, and her dismissive attitude of Aaron’s interest in being seen as anything other than Tristan’s mother’s boyfriend doesn’t aid the situation. Particularly when the events of the final act put both Aaron and Tristan in danger, the slipperiness of this exchange underlies the urgency to bring them both home safely.

The white-knuckler of a second act in Three Peaks brings both Aaron and Tristan back to the mountain, which symbolically and portentously features three jagged peaks united as one. Childish moves by both parties leave Aaron and Tristan stuck on the mountain, enveloped in the threatening fog, with Lea back home to fret about the fates of both her boys. Survival mode kicks in and Aaron and Taylor must learn to see one another as more than proximal strangers. The danger more menacing than the weather or the rugged mountainside, however, is the oscillating trust between both parties. Can a boy and his unwanted father figure be anything other than rivals for Lea’s affection?

Three Peaks is unexpectedly intense for a film that begins so innocently. Set up high in the rocky settings of the Italian Dolomites, Three Peaks adeptly uses atmosphere and pathetic fallacy to harness the ominous expansiveness and inherent danger of the landscape to create a cloud of tension as thick as the mist of the mountains that hangs atop the drama. The three strong performances by Fehling, Bejo, and Montgomery provide a worthy set of wedges with which to challenge loyalty and sympathy as the fate of the family clings for life. Expect the unexpected as Three Peaks drops us into the lives of these three characters for an idyll family holiday run amok. Whatever you do, don’t forget to breathe.

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TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for info and showtimes.